The results of a recent study on domestic violence in the workplace carry dramatic implications for small-business owners. The University of Arkansas researchers found that individuals who have been abused by intimate partners miss work for health-related reasons and are tardy more often than other employees. It also showed that 20% of threats and 72% of stalking incidents occur at work, potentially putting other employees, and even customers, at risk.
Lead researcher Carol Reeves, associate professor of management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about the study and its implications for small business owners. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
How did this survey come about?
I have a personal interest in domestic violence and had done some research on it in the past. I started doing some background work in 2003, and then my colleague, Anne O'Leary-Kelly, chair of the management department, and I received two grants totaling $750,000 from the U.S. Justice Dept. to fund this study.
Who did you survey, and what did you ask about domestic violence?
We sent the survey via e-mail to 4,500 employees of Arkansas-based service firms. All employee levels were contacted, including executives, supervisors, and non-supervisory employees. We received 1,500 replies to the survey, which was a larger examination of work and family issues and also included questions about depression, self-esteem, and job satisfaction.
Almost 40% of female and 22% of male respondents said they had been abused at some point in their lives. Slightly more than 10% of the women and 8% of the men said that they had been victims in the past 12 months.
Were you surprised the abuse rates were so high?
That really was a shocker. These percentages are much higher than national domestic-violence victimization rates. In 1995 and 1996, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the National Institute of Justice sponsored the National Violence Against Women Survey, which reported that just over 22% of women said they had been abused at some point in their lives. About 1.3% of women nationwide said they had been victims of intimate-partner violence in the previous 12 months.
The other thing to keep in mind is that we asked about whether they had experienced threats of physical harm, stalking, physical force, and sexual and psychological abuse. We didn't even ask about verbal or emotional abuse.
Do you have any explanation for the very high rate of abuse reported in your study?
Arkansas frequently ranks in the top 10 states in the rate of domestic violence, and 80% of our survey respondents lived in Arkansas. But we don't think that fully explains the data. Most of the literature on this topic speculates that domestic abuse has traditionally been underreported.
My gut reaction is that there was more disclosure of abuse in our results because we surveyed people at work via the Internet, which is fairly anonymous. The earlier studies involved calling people at home. And if the abuse is occurring at home, how comfortable will people feel answering questions there?
We're going to expand the study to other organizations across the country. We hope those results will help us understand if past studies of domestic violence underreported victimization rates, or if rates in Arkansas are much simply much higher than the national average.
How does domestic violence spill over into the workplace?
Victims report that abuse perpetrators are invading the workplace, especially with stalking behavior like threatening telephone calls, e-mails, following the victim to work, and hanging around the office. Oftentimes other employees witness these events and have concerns for their own safety. So worker productivity is severely affected.
By the way, we followed up the survey with a conference on this issue with local and national business leaders. One woman I talked to told me that her husband would come to the office angry and her co-workers would go outside and try to calm him down. That kind of thing gives me the shivers. There's no worse place to be than in the middle of a domestic-violence situation.
What should business owners do about situations like the one you describe?
Most of the time, our survey showed, the employer isn't even directly aware of the domestic violence. Most respondents -- 82% -- said they had not disclosed the problem to a supervisor; 45% said they hadn't disclosed the problem to coworkers. However, a sensitive and alert business owner or supervisor might pick up on some of the side effects.
The survey showed that employees abused by an intimate partner are exhausted more frequently and have more difficulty concentrating at work than employees who aren't abused by an intimate partner. These results were true for both men and women.
When it came to productivity, females who said they had been victimized in the previous 12 months reported that they had been distracted, missed work, and were often tardy. Interestingly, male victims didn't report similar effects on their productivity.
Is there something that business owners can do to minimize the physical and psychological risks to their employees?
By themselves, business owners don't have expertise to solve the problem. However, they can contact their local law-enforcement agency and ask for help and information. Sponsoring a brown-bag seminar would be a start. It could include information on domestic violence as part of a larger safety program, and that would alert employees and supervisors to the problem so they can recognize it when they see it.
The good news that came out of our survey was that victims who perceived that their organizations or co-workers were supportive reported that the effects of the violence were mitigated in their work lives. And they also were extremely grateful for the support. So employers have a chance to develop very loyal employees when they assist those who are dealing with domestic violence.