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Domestic Violence: The NFL Isn't the Only Workplace With a Problem

In all likelihood, your boss does not know what to do about or is ducking the problem of domestic violence, bioethicist Art Caplan writes.
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All eyes are on the NFL’s response to domestic violence after the release of video showing Ray Rice knocking out his wife-to-be in an elevator. But what about your own employer?

Let’s get away from the NFL for a second: Far too little attention has been paid to what the companies we work for do in such situations. In all likelihood, your boss does not know what to do about or is ducking the problem of domestic violence.

Domestic violence occurs all the time. One in four women has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Approximately 42.4 million women women in the United States have experienced rape, violence, or stalking by a partner in their lifetime.

So what have employers done in response to this epidemic? Unfortunately, more than 70 percent of U.S. workplaces do not have a formal policy that addresses workplace violence, much less domestic violence. The number of employers who have policies for perpetrators is even lower.

As companies have adopted explicit policies aimed at protecting victims, such as victim assistance programs, flexible schedules, and leave time in the aftermath of violence, it remains uncommon for employers to have explicit policies regarding batterers. While some companies are willing to protect the battered, very few companies will take disciplinary action toward aggressors.

To be sure, it’s a thorny dilemma. Some experts worry that policies that explicitly punish or dismiss batterers will ultimately lead to more domestic violence. Victims often depend on their abusive partners for financial support and will be less likely to report violence if they fear their partner will lose a job. Batterers upset about job loss may attack again.

And both private and public companies worry about the legality of trying to regulate employee’s personal lives. Your company can’t tell you where to go on the weekends, so why should it have any business interfering in your marriage or family life?

Collective bargaining agreements typically protect members from intrusions into home life. The upshot? Domestic violence that stays in the home is not a punishable offense under nearly every employer policy.

But there is evidence that batterers’ proclivity for violence does affect the workplace. Husbands and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year. A small study of convicted batterers revealed that 78 percent use workplace resources to contact victims. Perpetrators of domestic violence are a workplace issue, but most employers, including the NFL, have been slow to pick up on it.

For a model of what to do, they might look to the federal government, the largest employer in the country. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management distributed a document called “Guidance for Agency-Specific Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Policy” to all federal agencies last February, and the Department of Justice was the first to implement it in November. Their policy suggests that agencies take disciplinary action against employees who have engaged in acts of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

An important caveat is added: There must be a proven connection between the misconduct and the employee’s ability to perform his or her job or the ability of the agency to fulfill its mission. Any disciplinary action taken against employees who commit acts of domestic violence will be based on job-related factors. This is largely due to a reluctance to regulate employee’s personal lives.

But, since domestic violence does not stay in the home, all employers should address this “personal” problem.

Your company should explicitly incorporate domestic violence into their HR department policies and handbooks. Perpetrators often contact victims from work, use workplace phones or computers to intimidate or harass or show up unannounced at their victims’ workplace. Once domestic violence enters the workplace it can and should be met with disciplinary action. Those who are abused should know their jobs will be protected if they need time for recovery or counseling.

It’s unsettling to think that just as many of our colleagues are domestically abused, millions are batterers. Yet while we are quick to criticize the NFL’s response to domestic violence, there is no conversation about domestic abuse in our own offices break rooms, or corporate retreats.

What Ray Rice and other players who batter do is wrong. And the NFL needs to figure out what to do about the issue. But given the prevalence of domestic violence, so does every other workplace in America.