House of Ruth Hopes Work with Ravens on Domestic Violence Policy

Workplace Domestic Violence Pro Football Kaiser Permanente Ray Rice Business U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The panels on the stand-up display feature the words of a dozen women who survived domestic violence, telling why they stayed and how they left.

By Lorraine Mirabella
The Baltimore Sun

Growing out of a larger effort to tackle domestic abuse — or intimate partner violence — as an issue affecting health and safety in the workplace, Kaiser Permanente sends the display, featuring the stories of its employees, around to its medical centers.

The project aims to “to open up a conversation, to let employees and members know they’re not the only one who may be experiencing domestic violence,” said Ann Jordan, program manager for women’s health at Kaiser, which offers domestic violence prevention programs to employees, including on-site services, referrals to community services such as shelters and training to recognize signs of abuse.

But such programs are unusual for most workplaces. In the Baltimore area, the House of Ruth of Maryland hopes that will change with the help of its recently forged partnership with the Baltimore Ravens in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal. The three-year partnership between the House of Ruth and the NFL team aims to raise awareness of domestic violence.

“Intimate partner violence is far more prevalent than many people understand,” said Sandi Timmins, executive director of the Baltimore-based center for battered women. “You can almost guarantee that every workplace at some point will be affected by this, whether they are aware of it or not.

One in four women is likely to be in a physically abusive relationship at some point, Timmins said.

Rice’s arrest and the subsequent video showing the former running back punching his then-fiancee in a casino elevator “clearly was something that caught the organization off guard” she said.

“They were not prepared with a defined path of actions.”

Timmins hopes the spotlight on the Ravens’ and the NFL’s handling of the Rice case will be an impetus for all employers to adopt intimate partner violence policies.

Such policies should cover how the workplace responds to victims on matters such as leave and work performance, how it responds to employees who commit violence and how to respond to potential safety risks, such as an abuser coming to the workplace, Timmins said.

Currently, just over a third of organizations have policies covering domestic violence, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Just one in five workplaces offer training on the issue. The group recommends that employers establish written policies on domestic violence, covering leave requests, providing victims access to information, extra security and time off when needed.

While most companies have rules to address substance abuse, attendance and workplace violence — which can include harassment and bullying as well as physical threats — “this is different in that the employee is a victim and the violence is not happening in the workplace necessarily,” Timmins said.

She suggested adding to those existing policies, taking care to provide training.

“It’s something that’s very uncomfortable for supervisors and managers,” she said. “The knee-jerk reaction is that something that happens in somebody’s home and private life is not something the workplace should address.”

But workplaces not only need to reach out because of the effect of their employees, but they ought to, Timmins said.

Incidents involving Rice and other NFL players are beginning to prompt employers to do just that, said Margaret Spence, president and CEO of Douglas Claims & Risk Consultants Inc., a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based workplace safety and human resources consultant. It’s common for a domestic violence policy to be incorporated into workplace violence or harassment polices or into codes of conduct, she said.

“Employers can’t stick their head in the sand anymore,” Spence said. “They have to now create a policy. We get the sense that everyone is recognizing they don’t want to have the spotlight put on their company the ways it’s been put on the NFL.”

Spence recently moderated a Twitter chat on domestic violence for the Society for Human Resource Management. Hundreds of HR directors participated, discussing hypothetical situations such as what to do if a high-profile person in a company is discovered to be a perpetrator and how to reach out to a worker who’s productivity has been hurt by the stress of abuse.

“We find that the shame and stigma of domestic violence prevents people from sharing they are a victim, but it also affects them when they come into the workplace,” Spence said.

The House of Ruth began reaching out to employers even before Ravens partnership began. For example, it has been working with Baltimore accounting firm Ellin & Tucker to teach what domestic violence is and how it can affect the work force.

For Ed Brake, CEO of the 100-person firm, educating the company about a topic that gets less attention from employers than sexual harassment and substance abuse is the first step toward crafting a policy.

“When we think of domestic violence in the workplace, my thought process is one of my employees being abused,” Brake said. The House of Ruth “opened up my eyes that I need to look at the other side of the coin also. Do I have an abuser in my workforce? I never put that into perspective.”

Additionally, he has learned is that “we think of physical abuse, but there’s the mental and verbal side of that that can be just as devastating.”

According to federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, victims of abuse should not be “revictimized,” by their workplace by being fired or forced to work in an unsafe environment, Spence said. That might mean allowing an employee time off for counseling, court dates or legal help, and making safety and health accommodations, some of which are even required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But it’s also important to plan what to do if an employee is accused or convicted of a domestic violence-related charge, she said. Employers could require through a code of conduct that workers disclose outside actions that may have an impact on the company. Employers also need to prepare for situations in which an abuser and victim both work for a company, she said.

“Any policy that affects people’s personal life, in order for them to create that policy, they would have to connect it back to work,” Spence said.

Employers need to be careful to craft policies they can enforce, especially when addressing abuse off premises by a nonemployee, said Philip Deming, principal of workplace consulting firm Philip S. Deming & Associates. Employers could set policies over whether to hire someone who had committed abuse, but must also be careful not to discriminate based on a prior conviction.

“In some states … it’s difficult for employers to regulate behavior outside the workplace,” Deming said.

At FutureCare Health & Management, which operates skilled nursing facilities in the Baltimore-Washington area, workplace violence rules include provisions for heading off and addressing on-site violence by an employee’s spouse or partner, said Holly O’Shea, vice president of human relations, corporate counsel and corporate compliance officer for the company. It’s a crucial protection for a workplace where more than three quarters of the employees are women, she said.

“If the victim is an employee of ours, they don’t necessarily share that information with us,” she said. But “we monitor for signs that might be happening. … We have a great employee assistance program and can offer that to employees,” with counseling and referrals to community services.

O’Shea said if an employees tells the company there’s a real threat, it will screen phone calls, provide closer parking, comply with restraining orders and even hire additional security.

As for hiring or retaining a perpetrator of violence, “We need to make sure we’re not employing someone who’s assaulting folks, but balance investigating that with their being innocent until proven guilty,” she said.

The impact of abusive relationships comes through in Kaiser Permanente’s traveling display, “silentWitness,” which travels to medical center lobbies and health and community fairs. It was started by Kaiser employees and dedicated to three employees who lost their lives to domestic violence. Jordan, the women’s health program manager, sees the display as a way to offer hope.

“I’m convinced that the internalized shame of being victimized by someone you love and trust leads to the secrecy that allows the abuse to continue,” says the story of a 42-year-old Kaiser psychologist. “My hope is that by telling my story, others will be encouraged to be more honest with themselves and others and get help.”

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Margaret Spence

Margaret Spence - CEO of C. Douglas & Associates, Inc., Keynote Speaker on Diversity, Women in Leadership, Mentorship and Workers' Compensation. Business strategist & consultant to Fortune 500 Corporations. Founder of "The Employee to CEO Project"


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