When Does Domestic Violence Become Workplace Violence?
The FBI defines a workplace threat as “[a]ny verbal or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as an intent to cause harm.” 1
Domestic violence becomes a workplace threat when an employee, or anyone with a familial or intimate relationship with an employee, engages in violent or threatening behavior designed to control or harm the target. Domestic violence usually involves people with a pre-existing personal relationship, whether as family members, spouses or persons with a child in common. This relationship may help a workplace evaluate and respond to the nature and frequency of the threat posed by the perpetrator. Although crimes of family or domestic violence are defined differently in every state, this resource provides a general definition.
Stalking is often a precursor to or co-occurs with sexual or domestic violence. A stalker can be known or unknown to the victim, and be a co-worker or client, a family member or intimate partner, an acquaintance or a stranger. The threat posed to the victim and the workplace will depend upon the perpetrator and their actions.
Addressing the workplace impact of domestic violence (and stalking) requires both prevention and response. Prevention includes creating an environment that supportive of victim-employees, and where potential perpetrators are deterred from such acts because they know there will be consequences. Response includes:
(1) addressing any threats or actual violence. Employers may be held liable for ignoring or failing to address potential or actual threats, but they should do so in consultation with the victim and in a manner that is mindful of the victim’s privacy and safety.
(2) promptly and respectfully responding to victims. Violence and threats to a victim can cause trauma that stays with the victim wherever she or he goes, including the workplace. Employers should conduct an investigation, provide such employees with access to appropriate services, and may be required to provide accommodations to employees who suffer injuries due to violence, whether or not they were suffered on the job.
(3) holding perpetrators accountable. Following an investigation, a workplace can discipline or terminate a perpetrator-employees or cancel contracts with vendors whose employees perpetrate such acts.
The following case studies illustrate how domestic violence and stalking impact the workplace:
Lenore asks to talk with her supervisor in private. Lenore tells him that she had to call the police last night to arrest her live-in boyfriend. She explains that she was talking on the phone with her mother when the boyfriend suddenly yanked the phone from her hand and pulled the cord out of the wall. Then he slapped and punched Lenore several times, giving her a black eye. He is still in jail today, but she needs to go to court to get an order of protection. She plans on staying with family members for a while.
Question: Is there a known threat of violence in Lenore's workplace?
Answer: Possibly. Risk is not static. It can and does change. Based on the information provided, there is not a clear and direct threat of violence to the workplace at present. That may change if Lenore’s boyfriend is released from jail. In fact, if she is staying with family, and her location is unknown to the boyfriend, the workplace could be the most likely location for him to stalk and find Lenore.
The supervisor can ask Lenore if her boyfriend has ever threatened to come to work, if Lenore is concerned that he may come to work, or if the boyfriend knows how to find her at work. If Lenore does reveal information that indicates her boyfriend intends to threaten or harm her at work, the supervisor must report the threat. In that case, the supervisor can also suggest (but not require) that Lenore apply for an order of protection and to include the worksite on her order of protection. See the Protection Order Guide for Employers and the Protection Order Guide for Employees on this website. While Lenore’s situation might not ever result in any threat to the workplace, Lenore’s experiences of violence may impact her while she is at work. Refer to the Model Workplace Policy and the Workplace Policy Creation Tool on this website for more suggestions on what kinds of leave or other workplace accommodation and assistance the employer might provide for Lenore, including referrals to local, confidential domestic violence services for assistance.
Tony drops by his supervisor's office and anxiously asks to talk. He informs the supervisor that his ex-boyfriend has threatened to kill him. He called Tony at work ten minutes ago and said that he has a gun and that he’s coming to get Tony. Tony says that his ex has a history of throwing things at him and trying to stab him with a knife. Tony doesn't know what to do.
Question: Is there a known threat of violence in Tony's workplace?
Answer: Yes, there is a high threat of violence in Tony's workplace. Immediate action must be taken. See Workplace Security and Safety Procedures and Threat Assessment below for ideas on what actions are needed.
When an employee's intimate partner or family member expresses an intention to harm the employee at the worksite or while engaged in work activities, there is a threat to the workplace. The employer must act to protect the employee and the worksite, including by calling law enforcement and security. If the threat is not obvious, the employer can ask reasonable questions to determine if a worksite threat exists. If no threat exists, the employer should refer the employee to local domestic and/or sexual violence resources, assist the employee with accommodations or workplace assistance he or she might need, and ask him or her to let the supervisor know if a workplace threat arises.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2004). Workplace Violence: Issues in Response. Quantico, VA: Critical Incident Response Group, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/workplace-violence