I was in my early twenties, and I thought I had it all. I was a first-generation college graduate with an exciting entry-level corporate job. I also was involved in a promising relationship that appeared destined to flourish. Little did I know the darkness that was ahead. One night, as he was driving and I was next to him in the passenger seat, out of nowhere, he slapped my face into the car window. The world around me spun in circles, and I swore to never speak to him again.
Less than a week later, however, I forgave him. He had convinced me that he would never do it again. This was the beginning of a vicious domestic-violence relationship that would take me one year to escape.
As I laid in bed one evening, trying to recover from one of the most violent episodes I had endured at his hands, I knew I needed to leave or else he could potentially end my life; he had gotten pretty close. However, I faced a number of complicated barriers that, at that time, seemed impossible to overcome. I was overwhelmed with feelings of isolation (because no one would understand why I allowed myself to accept the violence), despair, and confusion.
I mustered all my energy to get myself to work the next morning. Gathering myself at my desk, I noticed that one of my woman colleagues, who sat three cubicles down from me, clearly was also a domestic violence victim; her bruises were more noticeable than mine, bad enough that she was unable to cover them up. At that moment, I realized that I was not alone and that domestic violence was a more common occurrence than society acknowledges.
I was lucky. I was able to escape. But as I witnessed, victims of domestic violence are everywhere—including at work.
I assisted my colleague in gathering her personal items from the home she shared with her abuser. With the constant fear that her abuser would appear at any minute, I kept my cell phone open with “911” already input into my cellphone keypad in case I would need to call for help.
I encourage everyone to gain awareness of the signs of domestic violence so that you can be an ally in the workplace. A few signs, based on my experience, include: taking frequent breaks to the restroom; taking more days off than usual without a clear explanation; behaving in a manner indicating fear; appearing more sad or solemn than usual; being easily startled; and the appearance of bruises.
(Additional signs are catalogued by The National Domestic Violence Hotline and include best practices on approaching a possible abuse victim in your workplace.)
Yet there are multiple forms of abuse, and not all are physical. Other forms include emotional, verbal, and financial abuse, which may be difficult to identify.
I devised the acronym SAFE to help you remember a few ways to demonstrate your allyship:
S-Security Managers and other leaders: I encourage you to create psychological and physical safety for the victim, who may be found in a position at any level, from the front line to the C-suite. Domestic violence does not discriminate by sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or socioeconomic status.
A-Allyship and Awareness HR leaders: Demonstrate allyship by acknowledging the barriers that are faced when leaving a domestic violence relationship and create safety nets for employees in this situation. For example, companies should recommend a mechanism to provide financial assistance to employees in crisis or an employee donation pool for this purpose. In the Catalyst research report Promises vs. Progress: 2 Keys to Keeping Employees to Feeling Good and Staying Put, Bank of America‘s their allyship and advocacy by supporting their employees in navigating significant work-life events, such as support for survivors of domestic violence.
F-Foster HR leaders: Foster a culture of volunteerism. If your organization offers paid time off for volunteer hours, encourage employees to donate their time to a local domestic violence shelter. Maintain a shared folder of resources for managers and colleagues in case a team member exhibits signs of domestic abuse.
E-Empathy Everyone: Demonstrate empathy at all times for the survivor as they work through the situation and transition into their “new normal,” which can take weeks, months, or years. Catalyst encourages all leaders to connect with members of their team not only to lead inclusively but also to stay informed about challenges they may be facing outside of work.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one in three women and one in four men is a victim of domestic violence. With rates this high, some of your fellow colleagues may very well be victims.