Intimate partner violence, or IPV, is often perceived as a private occurrence; in reality, it also affects virtually every aspect of a victim’s life, including their work life. So, what role organizations can play in the understanding and prevention of IPV? Data collected by a Paris-based NGO, En avant toute(s), as part of a program supported by Yves Saint Laurent Beauty (YSL), can help address this question. It shows that work is one of the few spaces where people feel they can seek help, and that colleagues may be a victim’s only ally. At the same time, the financial freedom work gives people can make it a target for abuse. So what can organizations do to help? There are four key approaches: empower employees to support each other; make telling a manger a safe thing to do; watch for changes in your employees and check your assumptions about the causes of these changes; and role model healthy relationships at work.
“How can I help? What can I do?” asked a visitor to En avant toute(s), an NGO in Paris whose mission is to promote gender equality and end violence against women and LGBTQ young people.
The visitor was in a precarious position: They suspected their coworker was the victim of intimate partner violence but weren’t sure what to do to help. “I don’t know how to react knowing that I have to keep a professional distance,” they said.
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is domestic violence by a current or former partner in an intimate relationship. It can take a number of forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, economic and sexual abuse, and it can affect anyone — across racial/ethnic groups, class status, and social groups.
Although IPV is often perceived as a private occurrence, it also affects the workplace. It can result in absenteeism for victims of violence. Organizations also have to contend with situations where IPV spills over into the work realm (via stalking behaviors, for instance).
The role companies can play in understanding and preventing IPV — including identifying targets of IPV and empowering employees to help each other — was the subject of a 2020 research project conducted by En avant toute(s) and Yves Saint Laurent Beauty (YSL), with data analysis provided by Dr. Livingston. Here’s what we learned.
What the Data Reveals
En avant toute(s) offers an online chat function through which visitors anonymously can ask professionals with social services or psychology backgrounds questions about the health of their own relationships, or of the relationships of people they know. They are also directed to support services when needed.
As part of this work, En avant toute(s) analyzed 1,355 conversations via text or IM with 975 people (93.3% women). We then identified the work- and organization-related themes that emerged from the analysis.
At a high level, most of the people who contacted the NGO were concerned with violence, including (in the order of frequency): verbal abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, social abuse (e.g., humiliation in front of friends), cyber violence, and even legal/administrative violence (e.g., threats about custody of children or blackmail). Of those who spoke about their reactions to IPV (both witnesses and targets), the most common response was anxiety.
In total, of the witnesses to IPV who wrote into the chat, 10% were work colleagues and an additional 54% stated that they were friends of the victim.
Our analysis of the chat logs revealed three common scenarios involving IPV and the workplace:
Work is often the only space where victims are free to seek help, and coworkers may be their only ally.
In many cases, IPV relies on social isolation from friends and family, leaving coworkers as some of the only outside contacts a target of abuse might have. We found that some cases were exacerbated by the Covid-19 quarantines. For example, “Kelso”* reached out to the En avant toute(s) chat line about a coworker, who was home with her ex-husband/abuser who monitored all her calls, texts, and emails. Under guidance from a professional social worker, Kelso and a colleague devised a code to communicate with the victim via professional emails that would not incite the ire of her abuser.
Work (and the financial freedom it often provides) is often a target of abuse.
Abusers often know that work is an outlet for the targets of their abuse. “Joey” reached out to En avant toute(s) to describe a situation where a client was a victim of IPV. The client worked for the same organization as her abuser, who had intentionally broken her computer to prevent her from communicating with her team. Joey felt lost and stuck, knowing that his client was suffering, but also feeling powerless to stop it. En avant toute(s) counseled Joey on how to empathize with the target of the abuse and not act in a way that would put her in more danger. They devised ways to provide resources and emotional support that did not make her the victim dependent on Joey to save her; rather, it could empower her to find help herself.
This case also demonstrated the difficulties that occur when IPV happens among coworkers. These effects can spillover to negatively affect more than just the victim — causing rifts in teams, increasing anxiety among those who know what is going on, and leaving managers feeling helpless.
It may be difficult to avoid an abuser who is part of your professional network.
In one case, a woman, “Lucie,” reached out to En avant toute(s) because she was worried that a man who abused her colleague a number of years ago still works in their field. There is a high likelihood that Lucie and her colleague will run into the abuser in the course of their professional activities or even have to cooperate on projects. The colleague wants Lucie to stand by her in solidarity, but Lucie feels like it would be difficult to avoid someone in her field without negatively affecting her career. Lucie feels stuck, and the victim suffers twice: both from the abuse and from the anxiety of knowing that she may encounter her abuser in the course of regular work activities.
Companies might overlook situations like this, as employees at suppliers, clients, or consultancies may not even be on their radar. They also may not be clearly covered by existing sexual harassment policies, and human resources may have no template to follow to regulate it. Nevertheless, Lucie and her colleague are experiencing anxiety about the probability that they will run into the abuser at a conference, on a job site, or be asked to contact him for a project. The growth of project-based work surely makes these complex contacts more likely.
What Can Organizations Do?
These cases are emblematic of the complicated ways that IPV can affect workplace teams — and how the workplace (and employees) can in turn affect IPV. Unfortunately, situations like these may be more common than you might think: The WHO estimates that 30% of partnered women worldwide have been victims of IPV and the CDC estimates that about 20% of women in the U.S. have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner, including sexual violence and stalking. Many of these women have jobs, interact with their coworkers, and receive feedback from managers — all while navigating an abusive home life.
Our research suggests that workplaces that are prepared can impact the wellbeing of their employees who are targets of IPV — and also the coworkers and managers who care about them. Here are four strategies for doing so.
Empower employees to support each other — formally and informally.
The above cases demonstrate how critical it is for coworkers to know what to do when they become aware of IPV, at any stage. For each person who reached out to En avant toute(s) for help, we imagine that thousands more did not. To address this gap, we recommend a few approaches.
First, leaders should promote citizenship behaviors, where coworkers help one another in non-mandatory ways, like covering for someone if they have to miss work or helping a coworker with difficult tasks even if they aren’t required to. Research shows this creates reciprocated, helpful, and supportive work climates.
Other Resources for Managers
It can be difficult to know what to do if you believe an employee or coworker may be a victim of IPV. There are many resources ...
Readily available training and resources can empower employees to take appropriate action if a colleague is a victim of IPV. Today, most workplace training around IPV is specifically meant to protect victims. For example, Liz Claiborne trains managers to recognize abuse signs among employees, respond appropriately, and refer victims internally or externally for help. YSL Beauty has also begun to train their employees in conjunction with their cause.
However, companies could also integrate learning from bystander intervention work to train coworkers to step in. Although existing work on bystander intervention is focused mostly on sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, recent research has also examined coworker intervention in response to workplace bullying. This training focuses on behavioral changes (including interrupting instances of assault or harassment, providing support to victims, and redirecting attention) and changes to attitudes.
Training employees to notice signs of abuse in their colleagues and how to (safely) intervene when they are concerned can give them the self-efficacy and confidence to help their coworkers, or even themselves.
Make telling a manager a safe thing to do.
Individual managers can help make their own work group a safe space for victims of IPV.
Creating psychological safety – defined as a team environment that supports interpersonal risk taking and encourages employees to speak up — is crucial: If you feel there is less of a chance that you will be retaliated against or judged for your personal situation, you will be more likely to ask for help.
Watch for changes in your employees and check your assumptions.
When it comes to IPV, be vigilant while watching for changes in your employees’ performance and reachability — and do not always attribute this to incompetence or poor fit. You can also ask their coworkers for feedback in ways that signal that you are not making assumptions about performance when external causes might be more accurate. For instance, you might ask if they are aware of any mitigating circumstances that might be affected their coworker’s performance. This can communicate that you are open to alternative explanations for changes in performance.
Role model healthy relationships.
Organizations can play an important role in modeling what healthy relationships look like. At work, this could include providing assistance on tasks and with careers. More importantly, it could capture the degree to which someone helps you cope with stress, responds supportively, becomes a friend, helps you grow as a person, and provides you with an opportunity to “pay it forward” via reciprocation of support. If your employees have learned via their intimate relationships that connections should be transactional or zero-sum and not reciprocal, demonstrating support and reciprocity at work can show them that there are healthier ways to relate.
While we’ve learned a lot about work and IPV through our initial research, we recognize that there’s much more work to be done. Going forward, we will continue to research how companies can prepare their employees and support them in regard to IPV, and how can we use these conclusions to create a better, safer, workplace.
* All names in this story are pseudonyms.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.