I suspect my coworker or employee is being abused at home, what should I do?
I mentioned last week that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but it is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. Domestic violence is violent or aggressive behavior within the home, typically involving the violent abuse of a spouse or partner.
I distinctly remember one night when I was living in the city, I heard my neighbors next door yelling at each other at around 3am on a weeknight. After listening in on what the screaming match was about (as nothing else could be heard at that hour, and it was right outside my bedroom window) I was able to conclude that it was a tiff among drunken family members. What disturbed me the most was that there was a woman yelling “you’re going to wake the kids!” as, sure enough, I started to hear some children’s sobbing from the bedrooms upstairs. It never turned violent (as far as I know), despite the “what are you going to do about it?” and the “fine, f*&^%ing hit me then!” But the whole scene was disturbing and heart-breaking to hear. I was relieved when the police came to mediate the issue. It saddens me that it gets to a point sometimes, where people living in the same home, physically hurt someone with whom they also exchange the words “I love you” with.
It’s really hard to be a third party looking in on suspected domestic violence. There’s a certain level of confidentiality we maintain with our coworkers and employees due to professionalism. But being that we spend so much time around them, we often find ourselves forming a closeness with them that forms a genuine concern for their health and well-being. That’s why, we become especially keen to changes in behavior and appearance. If you suspect that your coworker or employee may be being abused at home, here are the steps you should take:
DISCLAIMER: There is no way to tell for sure if someone is experiencing domestic violence. Those who are battered, and those who abuse, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, economic classes and personality types. Victims are not always passive with low self-esteem, and batterers are not always violent or hateful to their partner in front of others. Most people experiencing relationship violence do not tell others what goes on at home .
1. Know the signs
According to the University of Michigan’s Stop Abuse initiative, the signs of domestic abuse are commonly:
- Unexplained injuries or injuries that do not fit the explanations of how they occurred
- Inappropriate dress/excessive make-up
- Minimization and denial of harassment or injuries
- Sensitivity about home life or hints of trouble at home
- Unusual absence or lateness for work
- Sudden or sustained drop in productivity
- Unusual signs of anxiety or fear
- Frequent, upsetting phone calls, flowers, gifts at the workplace
- Isolation, unusual quietness, keeping away from others
Bear in mind that there could be a multitude of reasons why someone displays this behavior, not just through domestic violence. Additionally, know your company’s Employee Domestic Violence Policy and Procedure if they have one.
2. Approach them
StopRelationshipAbuse.org  gives these pointers on approaching a coworker if you suspect they are being abused at home:
- Approach in a private and confidential manner.
- Explain what you have noticed and that you are concerned–“I’m wondering if things are going ok at home–if maybe someone is hurting you.”
- “No one deserves to be hurt or controlled by someone else.”
- If your coworker denies, don’t push the issue.
- Let your coworker know you felt you needed to ask, since relationship abuse is common, and that you are available to talk anytime.
3. Be supportive
If your coworker decides to confide in you about the issue, it means they trust you with very delicate information. StopRelationshipAbuse.org  suggests these ways to show your support:
- Be patient, be a good listener
- Recognize that your coworker is the expert about her/his situation: don’t tell your coworker what to do
- Encourage your coworker to seek help from social services or hotlines
- Help your coworker speak with supervisors and security about the situation
- Help your coworker make a safety plan
- Assist in whatever way your coworker finds most helpful–screening calls, accompanying her/him out to lunch, etc.
- Maintain confidentiality
- Respect your coworker’s decisions–this is a complex issue, and you cannot know all of the factors involved
Additionally, here are some things you can say to show your support :
- Thank you for telling me–I know it was difficult to do.
- I’m very glad you told me. I’m concerned about the health and safety of you and your children.
- I believe you.
- You are not alone.
- There are people who can help you.
- I’m sorry you have been hurt.
- It wasn’t your fault. You are not to blame.
- No one deserves to be treated this way.
- I understand how difficult it is be in this situation. It may take some time to figure out what to do.
- I will support you no matter what you decide to do.
Bottom line: While it’s easy to make assumptions and show your concern in a way that you may think is non-intrusive and well-intentioned, your coworker or employee knows more about the situation than you. Even if you’ve spoken about it, they have a level of understanding about their situation that you will never quite understand, and therefore, you can’t tell them what to do. The most you can do is show your concern, and let them know you care about them and support them. Assure them that if they ever need anything, then they can call on and trust you (and mean it!).
“Early Warning Signs of Domestic Violence.” NewChoicesInc.Org. New Choices Inc., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Ray, Jaron, HotlineAdmin_MB, and Michelle. “Kathryn Robinson.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.