Violence in and out of the Workplace: ‘Putting Our Heads in the Sand is Not a Great Idea’


By Dara Barney

Sarasota, FL ( - Think back on all of your jobs. Not just the current one, but the one before that, and maybe the one in retail or food. Do you remember receiving any sort of guidance or handbook policy direction on what to do if a) some sort of violent incident, maybe a shooting, occurs or b) a coworker or staff member has a bruise on their face that wasn’t from a hard hit on a boat the weekend before? 

If the answer is no, you aren’t alone. Some companies have started to take to the books and training to teach employees how to respond, but what about who’s left?

Penny Morey, Managing Director at RemarkAbleHR, Inc.; and Elizabeth Bradshaw, Victim Advocate, Special Victims Unit for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, spoke at the WCI 2017 Conference about Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Other Workplace Challenges; and recently caught up with to talk about what steps to follow in a similar situation, but how utilize prevention tools before it can become too late.

Morey emphasized the importance of educating employers: “We really urge them to put policies and training into place, to prevent workers’ comp claims (time away from work, etc.) and to teach employees. Try to raise awareness. For instance, I knew a woman who worked at a nicer hotel who was too afraid to tell her coworkers she was living in a shelter to avoid her abusive live-in boyfriend. When he showed up to work, her coworkers waived him over, not knowing about the situation. No stigma here, it was a nicer hotel, it can happen to anyone.”

Bradshaw talked about the availability of resources. “Victim advocates are here, they’re all over. To this day, people still don’t know we exist. We can help with those resources, getting someone into a shelter. For instance, a big tech company had a domestic violence situation, and decided to touch base with us and review their safety training. It was a big eye opener for all of us.”

Paul E. Spector, Professor at the University of South Florida, also spoke at the WCI 2017 Conference, this time about Violence and Mistreatment at Work. The crowd was abuzz with major interest in the recent attention airlines were getting over passenger removal controversies, but one woman reminded the audience that flight staff onboard are constantly verbally abused, and have nowhere to go to diffuse the situation.

Spector said people do get hurt at work, whether it is psychological or physical, and workers’ comp incidents can arise from that. He talked about Helen Green, who won about $1.5 million in a London case after being bullied by her coworkers and terminated after being overcome with depression (per the New York Times).

“When it comes to intimate partner violence, it is hardest for companies to deal with. It is nothing they have done, and policies may not be in order to practice in a situation like that. It is hard to anticipate, that is why generally companies don’t like family members in similar units,” he said. “What do you do in a bad breakup where the abuse takes itself to the workplace? It is also hard to measure. In a study of 200 nurses we conducted about violence, we additionally asked them about abusive they’ve experienced and no one was willing to admit it even on an anonymous questionnaire. Does that mean it’s not happening? No. Could it mean they were too ashamed to write it down? Maybe. But the bottom line is it is difficult to put into data.”

Bradshaw referenced a case where the boyfriend moved in with a woman who had divorced her husband two years prior, whom she had a son with. The ex-husband came to work and shot her and then himself in a murder-suicide. “What can you do after the fact? First it’s good to see the company put importance in its employees, had law enforcement come in to review policies and helped the employees cope with a memorial garden outside the office building,” she said.

Morey worked with the woman for five years, and said both people involved were well educated, and well respected in the community. “Like I said, it can happen to anyone. …They both had masters’ degrees, and the husband was the CEO for a counseling center… Workers’ comp insurers need to start educating and providing resources to their insured. How does it affect you? How does it affect me? Putting our heads in the sand is not a great idea. Reaching out to the insured now before a disaster strikes with a mini package on what to do instead of, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s happened. Now what?!’”

For the employers who have a not my problem attitude, Morey said she’s seen incidents with 15 employees or fewer. “Some companies don’t have advisers, and I get that. But if I was a carrier, I would stress to employers that this could affects any employee and the employer will need to deal with the fallout,” she said. There should even be assistance to the perpetrator if they are willing to come forward. “Employers should let them know if they voluntarily come forward and participate in Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counseling, it will be taken into consideration instead of not being able to offer help because no systems are in place.”

Physical abuse isn’t the only kind of pain that can be inflicted on someone in or out of the workplace. “Equally, physical and psychological abuse have impacts on people. Folks have minimized the effects on psychological pain for too long. It can affect the victim from a physical and emotional standpoint, where a workers’ comp claim might come into play if it’s coming from a coworker,” Bradshaw said.

Spector had a few words of advice. “Be aware of high risk areas, things employees can do, how to behave in certain situations. In health care, watch for psychological triggers, maybe leave and come back five or ten minutes later. Psych employees are always trained to have access to the door, to never let a patient get between them and the door.”

A lot of workers’ comp cases focus on the physical wellbeing of an individual, and haven’t stepped forward full force to help combat psychological issues in some areas of the country, according to Morey. 

Building awareness for all types of abuse, whether it is through newsletters, seminars, safety programs, handbook edits, etc. are all important pieces to working on this issue, agreed both Morey and Bradshaw. Also the two said that abuse isn’t just limited to a relationship situation outside of the job, it could be between coworkers who aren’t even romantically involved in the workplace. It could be a client, and/or involve bullying, jealousy, etc.   

Bradshaw reminded readers of the 2013 Susan Still case in New York. Her supervisor noticed her physical abuse, and overheard her call her husband “master” on the phone and report her leaving work time, because she’d have “Hell to pay” if she was any later than 10 minutes. Her boss sat her down, told her that her job was secure, and made her feel safe. Still broke down, and the supervisor helped her get the police involved so she could escape the abusive environment. That amount of understanding probably saved Still from more severe violence or a fatal tragedy, Bradshaw said. Domestic abuse sees no rankings either, Still was the breadwinner. She is now a major human rights activist and speaker.

Morey told that abuse doesn’t see demographics either. “I worked in a heavy manufacturing industry where physical abuse was more apparent, where the parking lot would have guys with guns after hours. Ford had to close down a huge foundry because of the amount of violence. This was in your face violence, but I think white collar abuse is just more insidious. People might be better educated and keep it behind closed doors.” 

In a nation where only a few states offer paid/unpaid time off to cope with domestic abuse, Bradshaw and Morey said it is up to the employers to put programs in place that not only reduce the stigma of domestic violence, but prepare employees for the worst, and what to do before the worst materializes.

“People need to start paying attention on a state and federal level legislatively, but it starts with the companies and employers themselves to create a culture of acceptance for victims and awareness about resources available to them,” Morey said.

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