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Domestic Violence Is Spilling Into the Workplace : Battered: Companies’ productivity suffers as absenteeism, employee turnover and health care costs rise. Some firms take the lead to stem the losses.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Employees in a staff meeting at Polaroid Corp. were teasing a colleague about his impending divorce when one asked him how he would get by alone.

Suddenly, the plant maintenance worker grabbed an ax and started swinging it at his hecklers. Later, in psychiatric treatment, he revealed that on the previous night he had held a knife to his wife’s throat and threatened to kill her.

Domestic violence is spilling over into the workplace, either directly as in this instance, or indirectly, causing diminished productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover and rising health care costs.

While most companies still don’t see violence at home as relevant to what happens at work, a handful of others are acting to stem the losses.

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“It’s an issue to which companies should be turning their attention,” said Richard Gelles, a University of Rhode Island professor of sociology and psychology who has researched family violence over the last 25 years.

The Bureau of National Affairs estimates domestic violence costs companies between $3 billion and $5 billion a year. That doesn’t include health care costs, which most say are hard to quantify but reach perhaps into the billions.

Gelles estimated about 1 million days of work are lost each year as a result of domestic violence. But conflict and stress at home can affect employees’ job performance even when they manage to put in full days--many suffer from illness, depression and lack of attention, Gelles said.

The Surgeon General’s office estimates that between 20% and 30% of emergency room visits by women result from domestic assaults and perhaps as many as 1,400 women are murdered by a husband or boyfriend each year.

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Polaroid began to think about the connection between worker productivity and abuse at home about 10 years ago through the company’s employee assistance program (EAP). An incident stirred the company to action, said Jim Hardeman, manager of Polaroid’s EAP.

The performance of a female employee, a 17-year veteran, began to slide. One day she arrived at work particularly late and was confronted by her male boss, with whom she had worked for five years. In response, the woman verbally attacked her superior, who suggested the two visit the employee assistance program office together.

In the course of counseling it came out that she was a battered wife and knew of several other women in similar situations within the company. A counseling group was organized for the women, who cut across ethnic and socioeconomic lines, Hardeman said.

Polaroid started looking not only at employees who were possible victims of abuse but at those they suspected might be offenders.

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“We started looking at individuals who were violent at work and found over half were also violent at home,” Hardeman said.

This month, the company begins training managers and supervisors in how to spot and handle employees on both sides of the problem.

Still, some executives believe a company should not be interfering in what happens at home.

“Why would an employer have in place a plan to deal with someone’s private life?” General Motors Corp. spokesman Chuck Licari asked. “Domestic violence is not an issue for General Motors.”

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At the same time, the company’s employee assistance program is available to help any employee needing support, Licari said.

Gelles warned that companies not paying attention to the issue are shortsighted.

Although there is statistically little likelihood that the abuse will translate into real physical violence at work, if it does it can be a significant problem for a company, he said. Labor Department research shows that employee confrontations with personal acquaintances resulted in at least 39 workplace homicides in 1992, the last year for which there are statistics.

Moreover, he said, there are the economic costs.

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The workplace is a reasonable point of intervention, Gelles said. EAPs are potentially useful and viable ways to provide counseling and other help for both victims and offenders. If a man is at risk of losing his job because of his actions at home or at work, he is more likely to agree to counseling, Gelles said.

United Healthcare Corp. has established domestic violence programs or provided seminars for about 500 of its 5,000 corporate clients over the last four years, according to Jude Miller, the health maintenance organization’s director of operations.

“We are trying to help executives be aware of the issue,” Miller said.

Part of the problem, Miller said, is that, strange as it sounds, many women are not aware that the abuse they suffer is abnormal or even wrong and that companies can play a role in making them aware.

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“Many don’t see it as separate from themselves,” she said. “It becomes the norm.”

Several companies are concerned and have started focusing significant resources on the issue of family violence.

Polaroid contributes heavily to local shelters for battered women. Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1992 launched a campaign to draw attention to the problem with message-laden coffee mugs, T-shirts, posters and brochures.

Ryka president and chief executive officer Sheri Poe said it was statistics on the prevalence of family violence as well as an attack she suffered as a college student that turned her attention to the issue.

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Ryka gives 7% of pretax profits to its Rose foundation, which donates to battered women’s shelters and others who work against all forms of violence against women.

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Warning Signs to Watch for on Domestic Abuse

Increasingly, companies are recognizing that domestic violence has bottom-line consequences and some are acting to help victims and stem the losses. Here are some ways United HealthCare Corp. suggests employers can identify abused employees.

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* Bruises, which the employee may attempt to hide with makeup.

* Depression, including crying at work.

* Harassing phone calls at work from the abuser.

* Frequent absences from work.

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* Frequent doctor’s appointments.


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