I think my employee is being abused by her partner — Ask a Manager

Content warning for discussion of abuse below.

A reader writes:

I have been a director at my organization for a few years now in a small town. We have a staff of 23. Some have been here for 20+ years, some are new, but it’s a pretty great group of people and we all work well together.

To get right to the point, one of my employees, Carrie, appears to be in an abusive relationship and doesn’t realize it. She had a very religious upbringing (not uncommon for the area or amongst the staff) and met her now husband, Bob, when she was 15 and he was in his mid-twenties. They’ve been together for 10 years or so.

Bob is dismissive, arrogant, and entitled, and has physically grabbed Carrie at work, even through the Covid shields. Multiple staff have come to me with scenarios that make them uncomfortable, although they (and Carrie) often brush it off, saying, “That’s probably an inside joke” or “I’m sure he means well.” She frequently shares stories as venting/joking, but they leave us all floored, and sometimes horrified, but nothing actionable.

Multiple staff who are close with her have told me about incidents, the most jarring being Bob seeing her waiting (he is frequently late picking her up, which is a problem especially in winter, when temps are often -35) and when he arrives, he will accelerate his car in the very small parking lot, nearly hitting her. He always slams on the brakes or swerves, but it’s concerning to all of us. One time, Carrie was waiting next to a building and he accelerated directly at it/her, so there’s no mistake he’s doing this deliberately to frighten her.

Other times she’ll call him to see if he’s there and he’ll yell at her that he’s been waiting for her, but when they get outside, he’s nowhere to be seen. When she calls again, he says he’s just leaving and he doesn’t understand why she thinks he was there already.

I don’t know how to counsel my staff, much less help Carrie. My greatest fear is that he will kill her and tell the police that it was “just a joke.” I am also afraid that if I directly confront him, he will force her to quit and then she will have no support system nearby.

Please, any advice would be helpful. This is so far out of anything I’ve had to deal with in over a decade of management. I genuinely don’t know what to do.

Oh no, this is awful.

I wanted to bring experts in on this, so I spoke with Micaela Deming, the policy director for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who said:

Domestic violence survivors are constantly navigating their safety. They are the experts in their abusive partner’s behavior and should be empowered to make the decisions about their safety. If there are any children involved, studies show that the abusive parent (some studies specifically say abusive father) is likely to get more time with or even full custody of the children than a non-abusive father or a parent raising the abuse in a custody case. During and after separation from an abusive partner is also the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim. These are just two examples of how complicated it can be to leave an abusive relationship.

The manager is absolutely right to be concerned that the abuser would force the employee to quit their job if the employer took any action to intercede. Losing a job and supportive colleagues increases isolation and the amount of control that the abuser has over the victim. However, this workplace, like all workplaces, has a great deal that they can do to support survivors of domestic violence. Work is a place where training and support can be provided to all employees during normal work hours. Even a safe space and phone number to call a domestic violence victim advocate or hotline can be a lifeline that is too often not available at home or with a cell phone that the abuser has access to. Having a safe place, time, and access to technology that the abuser cannot track can be key to a domestic violence victim being able to get information, make choices, and plan to leave the relationship if that is what they choose to do.

Workplaces should have policies in place to address the impacts of domestic violence against employees … policies should include safety for the workplace, flexibility, and leave for survivors to address the medical, mental health, legal, and other challenges created or exacerbated by the abuse. This is a good place for workplaces to get started. During the development of the policies or on a regular basis, the employer can bring in a local domestic violence organization to provide some training and information to the staff. Given the rates of domestic violence, there is a good chance that more than one person on staff can use the information or knows people that may need the resources.

Ultimately, for a person who may not be identifying their situation as domestic violence, letting them know that there are resources available and that the office will be supportive is a great place to start. If the employee decides to reach out for support or make a plan to leave, they will know that keeping their job (and income) is not going to be a barrier to safety.

I asked Micaela, “Would it be a good idea for this manager to name what they’re seeing to Carrie? If she has somehow normalized his behavior in her head, I wondered if it would helpful for someone at work to say, ‘Whoa, this is not normal or okay.’” Her response:

Yes, I think it can be helpful and supportive to tell the employee (in a safe, separate place) that they are concerned, that way they are seeing is not normal. The relationship here is important because if the manager comes on too strongly or suggests that there is a “right thing” for the employee to do, it can create a barrier for the employee to reach out for help later. Simply expressing concern, saying that is not normal, resources are available if you ever want to talk to someone is okay.

Putting up a flier in the bathroom stalls and break areas, talking about the company policy, having a staff training, are all also ways to help the survivor recognize the signs and red flags in their own relationship in a non-direct way.

I also spoke with Leigh Honeywell, cofounder and CEO of Tall Poppy, a cybersecurity and personal safety startup which deals with workplace violence issues. She offered this advice:

Talk 1:1 with the employee at a time where she’s not otherwise stressed (as much as you’re able to determine that). Describe your own observations of concerning interactions in a neutral, factual manner. Do your best to convey concern without judgement; the goal is to open the conversation and establish a lifeline of safe communication and support. Avoid assumptions about the employee’s awareness or not of the abusive nature of her relationship — the goal is to focus on concrete behaviors that you or colleagues have witnessed her being subjected to to start with.

Share resources such as an EAP, local crisis center information, and thehotline.org or the local equivalent if they are outside the U.S. Depending on the jurisdiction, there may be protected domestic-violence-specific leave available to the employee – New York is one example that has such a “Safe Leave” law.

Leigh also suggested creating a safety plan that includes what the workplace should do if Bob calls or physically comes into the office:

My concern is not only that the manager’s fear that Bob will kill Carrie is very justified, but that he’s also a threat to the workplace more generally. Current or former intimate partners accounted for nearly 33% of women killed in US workplaces between 2003 and 2008, according to The Hotline.

… Given that he has already been physically aggressive to her on site, I’d also recommend that he immediately not be allowed physically on-site to protect other colleagues, but that that should be communicated sensitively given his aggression. The Hotline has a great safety planning resource” to start with.

I asked Leigh, “If they tell Carrie that her partner is not allowed on-site anymore (which seems very reasonable), should they be concerned that he’ll react badly to that and force her to quit the job, thus depriving her of what could be a lifeline? And if so, are there ways they could mitigate that?” She said:

That’s definitely a concern, and comes down to balancing the safety (physical and emotional) of the organization overall with her personal safety, unfortunately – while also recognizing that pressuring the victim to quit their job is a classic way abusers isolate and control their victims. The details of any such limits on his presence should be part of the safety planning discussion; strategies for mitigating the impact will depend a lot on the individual circumstances of the office, e.g. it may be easy for a healthcare organization to say “no non-staff/non-patients past the front desk,” etc. It may be that he’s not allowed inside the building, or past a front desk – but there should definitely be a conversation about his presence with folks in the front office as well so that they know to be alert to his presence and escalate to security if needed.

Leigh also addressed what you can do if employees bring up concerns about the stories Carrie is sharing:

• Validate their concerns as being appropriate given the nature of the stories, and that you are concerned as well but can’t go into detail out of respect for the employee’s privacy.
• Convey that it is appropriate to gently de-normalize these disturbing accounts, and share their own feelings such as “that’s a really upsetting story” or “I’m concerned about how he treats you.”
• Share resources like the EAP for them to seek their own support.
• Discuss any workplace safety plans/resources that are in place or being put in place.

I hope this helps, letter-writer.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Also recommended: Helping Her Get Free by Susan Brewster (Leigh says it’s “super useful for anyone supporting someone of any gender dealing with abuse”).

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