Apr 16 2012

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Partner violence is managers' business

By Ann Belser

There are already so many uncomfortable conversations that managers have with their employees. Broaching the subject of intimate partner violence could be one of the hardest, but one of the most important, since it could help save an employee’s life.

Good intentions aside, paying attention to the issue goes beyond a manager caring about workers. It’s also a cold calculation of business: Violence at home costs employers money.

A 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 30 percent of women in the country and a quarter of the men have been slapped, pushed or shoved by an intimate partner.

Abuse between intimate partners costs businesses in the nation $8.3 billion annually based on an equation adding up medical care, mental health services and lost productivity, according to an estimate that the CDC put together in 2003, the last time it ran those numbers.

This kind of trouble used to be called domestic violence, but the CDC broadened the term to “intimate partner violence,” which is defined as violence between two people in a close relationship including current and former spouses and dating partners.

For the last three years, Oakland-based nonprofit Standing Firm has been training companies, their managers and employees to recognize the signs of intimate partner violence, and to let a victim know that she or he has options.

“What we are trying to do is get employers to address partner violence,” said Barbara Penner, the project coordinator for Standing Firm.

Ms. Penner said while it may seem to employers that violence at home is none of their business, it becomes very much their business when a woman escapes an abuser and he knows the one place he can find her is at her workplace. “When he tries to harm her, her customers, patients, co-workers or clients are in harm’s way as well,” she said.

Even if it doesn’t go that far, there are other ways that a situation can affect the workplace, Ms. Penner said. “An employee who is experiencing partner violence is often unable to come to work or be as productive or be as focused, and those kinds of issues are very much important issues to an employer’s bottom line.”

Ms. Penner said she almost always uses the female pronoun when referring to victims of physical abuse and male when talking about the perpetrator because in 85 percent of the cases, that is the pattern, though abuse crosses gender lines and can be found in same-sex relationships as well.

Ms. Penner said there are many signs that could indicate intimate partner violence: co-workers suddenly wearing sunglasses inside, or long-sleeved shirts in the summer; women getting jumpy or crying in the bathroom or ducking into a stairwell to make calls on their cell phone; once-friendly co-workers who stop sharing stories about their lives and become more isolated.

Managers need to be trained to talk to employees about the resources available.

“We don’t suggest that employers become domestic violence counselors,” said Susan Nitzberg, the outreach coordinator for the organization.

In many cases, she said, people don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. For someone being abused, the co-worker or manager who reaches out may be the first person offering help.

As for possible abusers, there is role for management to take with them, too.

Signs that men are abusers include misusing company resources or screaming at their partners on the phone.

Ms. Penner said an employee’s manager can point him to an employee assistance program, which is a counseling program that is paid for by an employer.

“Pointing out inappropriate behavior by a manager is probably the first time he’s been told he’s doing anything wrong,” she said.

While it is hard to track results, Ms. Nitzberg said that since Standing Firm started working with the City of Pittsburgh about two years ago, five people who called the women’s shelter said they did so because their manager reached out to them.

The program is open to all companies, and managers who call can receive a free 30-minute phone consultation without signing up, Ms. Penner said. Companies that do join can receive access to training for their managers and workers.

Standing Firm is a regional initiative that reaches out to employers but can also be found through its website, www.standingfirmswpa.org.

Membership to the organization is free, though the group charges for training sessions, with fees based on whether a company is a for-profit or nonprofit organization. A free initial 30-minute consultation will help companies focus how they want to address partner violence and help to set the company’s priorities.

The company currently has 131 member companies.

Standing Firm is one of just a few nonprofits in the nation that focus on partner violence as it affects workplaces instead of focusing on victims services.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related: Educational Resources for Domestic Abuse

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