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Domestic violence (cont.)

By Betsy Morris, senior writer
Last Updated: November 20, 2008: 11:51 AM ET

"Because if there had been a training [program] called SafeWork at Fortune, then I probably wouldn't have felt so alone. I probably would've learned there were things you could do to make yourself safe. People I worked with would have known how to approach me. You could lessen the pain and shorten the experience."

Domestic violence is costly

Domestic violence hurts business. "I'm amazed at the cost involved," says Mike Nolan, president of a Phoenix-based recruiting and placement agency.

He had no idea how much until he got to his office on a Saturday nine years ago just in time to see one of his employees being punched repeatedly by her husband. Before her eventual divorce, the employee had been "a marginal worker," he recalls. "We'd talked with her about attendance and focus." Now she's a key executive, he says. Often, he says, it's not laziness or irresponsibility that holds an employee back but domestic abuse.

"The victim is at the center of a circle," says Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, a clearinghouse formed by businesses to address the issue. "You have victims working for you. You have batterers working for you too. They're tracking the victims. The co-worker is trying to be a one-man domestic violence response team. The workplace has the potential to become a crime scene, so you have a concerned boss...."

Sometimes the office becomes not just a psychological refuge but a physical one, as Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) was for Melissa Batten when she tried to flee her violent husband, Joseph Batten, a former Microsoft employee, this past summer.

Melissa, a sweet, well-loved game designer who'd worked on projects like Halo 3 and Gears of War, became afraid of her husband after he threatened her with a gun last June, according to her request for an order of protection, granted in late July. She got an apartment of her own, but it was her office at Microsoft - where there were supportive colleagues and security guards - that became her fortress.

When Joseph Batten tried to get to her at work by tailgating another car through the security gate on July 16, he was caught and thrown out, she told police. When he called Missy's boss and her colleagues to disparage her, they ignored him and blocked her phone.

"She would sleep at the office," says her sister, Ellen Brooks Bloom.

But when Missy Batten was leaving for work at 9 A.M. on July 29, Joseph Batten ambushed her in the parking lot of her apartment building in Redmond, Wash., and shot her eight times at close range before shooting himself in the head. At that tragic point, Microsoft became grief counselor. It flew surviving relatives to Redmond. It helped with logistics. It organized memorials for family and colleagues. "Microsoft has been wonderful," Bloom says.

The company won't talk about any of it, though. After agreeing to provide interviews for this story, it reneged, saying that it doesn't comment about employee matters that are "private." Despite all that it did for the Battens, it doesn't want to come near the topic.

Legal tangle

Domestic abuse exposes companies to an increasingly complicated thicket of federal, state, and local laws designed to protect victims. (More than 40 states have some kind of legislation designed to give victims some workplace protections.) In New York City, for instance, it's illegal to punish a victim for the actions of her abuser. So you can be damned if you do and if you don't.

Well-intentioned bosses can violate medical-privacy laws or antidiscrimination laws if they aren't careful about how they approach an employee they suspect might be a victim. That, more than anything, is reason to confront domestic violence head-on rather than ignore it, says Stacey Dougan, who became an expert on the issue after winning a landmark case in Florida in 1998.

Liz Claiborne, an early pioneer, developed a three-word call to action: "Recognize. Respond. Refer." "Recognize" means noticing if a colleague wears turtlenecks in summer, shrugs unenthusiastically at the arrival of flowers, is secretive about home, is absent a lot. "Respond" means inquiring and sharing your concerns. "Refer" means acting as a conduit to the resources and agencies that can help.

What bosses shouldn't do is try to solve the problems themselves. Domestic violence is too complex and potentially dangerous. A victim is at greatest risk when she leaves the batterer, studies show. And she can risk losing custody of her children in divorce courts, where abuse allegations can sometimes backfire on a victim.

The FBI agent who took the trouble to put her gun in the trunk of her car remembers being dumbfounded when she was asked under oath in divorce court, how she could be afraid of her husband when she had a weapon.

"It took me forever to articulate ... you want me to use deadly force against my husband in front of my children? Shoot their father?" she replied. After a three-year fight, she was awarded sole custody last year.

What companies can do

Different companies take different approaches, with the help of programs and policies developed by agencies like Safe Horizon and the Corporate Alliance.

Allstate has instituted financial training to help abuse victims get back on their feet. Verizon Wireless educates new hires, trains its supervisors, and lets employees know that to protect them, it will change e-mail addresses and phone numbers, monitor harassing voice messages, and change schedules. In the past year it relocated 20 employees to keep them safe.

"My No. 1 concern is overall safety. It is a top-tier worry," says Martha Delehanty, VP human resources at Verizon. "No company is protected from this, but if you have an employee who has [someone] stalking them in the workplace, and God forbid, something happens, it has a direct impact. It shuts you down."

Nobody knows that better than the people at Darwin Realty. Last fall and winter Cathy Radek was becoming increasingly worried about her friend and colleague Cindy Bischof.

"She was petrified, and I was petrified for her. Everybody was," Radek recalls. Bischof was doing everything she could to "switch up" her routines. "I made sure she called me ten times a day," says Radek. "Check-ins were required." Radek and Darwin president Cibula attended every court hearing - to give moral support to Cindy and send Giroux a message to leave her alone. "It was an emotional roller coaster for everybody," Radek recalls.

The impact of Cindy Bischof's murder on her colleagues at Darwin Realty has been incalculable, Cibula said last summer, "and it's still not over." It's not just that the firm lost one of its most productive employees, it's also that she was so well loved and had such a high profile in the industry.

When Cibula visited Cindy's clients and had to explain, "it was like reliving it over and over," he says. As new brochures are printed, Cindy's name has to come off. Cibula, who recruited Cindy and was as proud of her as if she'd been a daughter, found it especially hard to take her bio off the company Web site.

"We let it stay there a couple of months, but now it's gone," he said recently. "Now, instead of 'Here are the big deals she's done and she was active in northern Indiana and she was one of the most influential industrial real estate people in Chicago last year' - now it just says 'Our Friend Cindy Bischof, 1964 - 2008.'" It is some consolation, at least, that Darwin Realty did all they could to save her.

Reporter associate Doris Burke contributed to this article.

What do you think? Is domestic violence a problem for employers too? What should do they do to try and stop it? Join the reader discussion. To top of page

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