Bloomberg Law
Dec. 7, 2020, 9:00 AM

Domestic Violence During Remote Work: How Companies Can Protect Employees

Kimberly Brunell
Kimberly Brunell
Control Risks

Stay-at-home orders and other conditions caused by the pandemic have increased the risks of domestic violence. According to Human Rights Watch, domestic violence across the globe is up as a result of increased levels of stress, isolation from community networks and support, as well as economic hardship.

With many companies announcing long-term or indefinite remote work policies, these issues are unfortunately poised to continue. As we navigate this new normal, companies have a continued responsibility to address intimate partner violence when it intrudes upon or has the potential to impact workplace safety and productivity, even if the procedures look different now.

A number of legal considerations and best practices should be considered, including integrating intimate partner violence into an employer’s workplace violence prevention program while ensuring compliance with duty of care, privacy and confidentiality, anti-discrimination, paid and unpaid leave laws, and other state and local statutes, regulations, and contractual requirements.

Leverage the Law; Train Managers to Recognize Abuse

There are many regulations to encourage employers and managers to pay attention—and support them in intervening—to patterns and hazards related to workplace domestic and intimate partner violence.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act’s “General Duty” clause mandates that companies provide each employee with a “a place of employment free of recognizable hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” (29 U.S.C. Section 654(a)(1)).

These hazards can take many forms. Occupational researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have classified workplace violence into four types—one of which is “personal relationship” violence where the perpetrator has a harmful relationship with an employee that spills over into the work environment. This spillover might look different now with employees working remotely—but knowing abusers’ tactics and signs to pay attention to in this new environment is key.

For example, abusers may seek to exert power and control over an employee by interfering with their work, improperly attempting to monitor or access company correspondence or proprietary information. Additionally, instead of being able to notice an employee wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing in the office to cover signs of physical abuse, managers and co-workers should pay attention to other signs over video conferencing platforms—including if the employee avoids these meetings altogether.

On the other hand, in cases where employees are abusers, employers must acknowledge that workplace harassment (and other forms of violence) may continue whether employees are in person, teleworking, or on leave. Therefore, policies prohibiting the use of company devices to harass others through emails, phone calls, text messages, and video conferencing platforms should be updated, followed, and enforced.

Respect Employee Privacy

While employers have a qualified privilege to ask about issues related to domestic violence, if they’re based in good faith or a valid concern, they should respect employees’ privacy and confidentiality.

Recently, ASIS International and the American National Standards Institute released their revised Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Standard, which provides an overview of policies, processes, and protocols that organizations can adopt to prevent threatening behavior and violence in the workplace.

These include:

  • developing organizational policies that explain the purpose and goals in maintaining a safe workplace and supportive climate;
  • defining domestic violence and what behavior falls within that category;
  • offering resources for employees if they are experiencing domestic violence; and
  • explicitly stating terms of confidentiality.

After implementing or updating policies, employers should schedule company-wide trainings to ensure managers, supervisors, and employees are not only aware of them but also of the signs that indicate an employee is experiencing domestic violence.

Managers or supervisors who notice employees performing at a lower level than usual, refusing to participate in virtual meetings, or who are generally less available should make proactive efforts to communicate, check in regularly, and make reasonable efforts to work with them.

It’s critical that employers reduce the stigma of reporting domestic violence by increasing awareness and taking appropriate steps to maintain confidentiality, privacy, and discretion.

Employers must also make employees aware of anti-discrimination laws that allow victims of domestic violence to take a leave of absence and seek legal, housing, psychological, and/or medical services without retaliation.

Reminding employees of these rights and supporting them in this way is vitally important and should be a priority; employees will remember that their company showed up for them and could lead to a number of other organizational benefits, including increased employee loyalty and productivity as well as an enhanced reputation and corporate culture.

Take a Holistic Approach

Supporting employees facing domestic violence in these ways is crucial. Employers should be sure to undertake a supportive, rather than counseling, role and should dedicate resources toward developing robust EAP infrastructures, which provide third-party counseling and confidential assessments, among other services, to employees facing personal and/or professional problems. This will allow them to prioritize supporting employees, even as they tackle other business challenges amid the pandemic.

Though there are numerous considerations involved in addressing domestic violence in the remote workplace, it’s an issue that isn’t going away, and therefore one that companies must prioritize. By placing a premium on providing support and intervention to employees suffering from domestic violence and abuse, companies have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their people and exhibit strong leadership through a challenging period.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Kimberly Brunell is associate director within the Crisis Security and Consulting practice at global risk consultancy Control Risks.