How to Help a Co-Worker Who Is In An Abusive Relationship

Diana WinklerDomestic Violence

Is It Safe?

Does This Sound Familiar?

My coworker, Helen, shows up four hours late with no phone call. When she is at work, she is falling asleep at her desk. Her quality of work is starting to slide. I seem to have to pick up her slack more and more each day. She gets these phone calls during the day, several times a day, in fact. I think it’s her husband. I noticed bruises on her arm. I don’t know her very well, but she seems like she needs help.

What’s Going On?

Women in abusive relationships often have issues at work keeping a job, being productive at work and getting promoted. Most of the time, it is not because they don’t have a good work ethic, but rather the stress level is so high at home, that it is hard to focus at work. She probably doesn’t get any sleep. She has to worry for her children’s safety. Work may be the only place she feels safe. Sometimes her abuser harasses her at work, much to the dismay of an employer who doesn’t understand. I’m using a female pronoun, but I am not ignoring the male victims by any means. Females are more common, so I will be using “she” for simplicity’s sake in this post.

Men are victims of abuse too.

“It’s None Of My Business”

So, you’re thinking, “I’m not going to get involved because it’s none of my business.” Really? There is something wrong with our culture who thinks it’s their business to butt their nose in everyone’s life with nasty comments on social media, yet won’t walk over to their coworker’s desk and ask, “How can I help?” I’m not asking you to do some dramatic heroic action, such as having her move in with your family. I am asking you to invite her to have a cup of coffee with you and just listen. Not in a creepy way. Just say, “Hey, Helen, I’ve noticed you are having a hard time right now. I just want you to know I am here if you need someone to talk to.” You don’t have to offer solutions or tell her what to do. She may be grateful for the effort and share what is troubling her. Her response may also be that she doesn’t want to talk about it, or not want your help. That’s ok. Don’t push. But there may be a bad day when she will take you up on your offer. Just be a safe person for when she does need someone.

Why Should I Care?

You are not an island. Your success at work is directly related to the success of the rest of your team. Domestic violence affects your entire community. Your kids might play with kids from an abusive home. Your spouse might even work with an abusive person. The local babysitter everyone trusts might turn out to be a pedophile. Perhaps there will be another coach or teacher caught assaulting countless students over the years. All these things affect our community in numerous ways. That’s why we can’t just sit by and allow it to happen under our noses. That’s why we can’t ignore the telltale signs of abuse in the lives around us. It is part of being a decent human being to take care of one another. Some day you yourself will need some kind of help.

Some of you are thinking that the solution would be to fire her. Then you wouldn’t have to take any responsibility for a fellow human being. It’s someone else’s problem now. Being fired from a job without a good reference, she will most likely be out of work a very long time, or eventually on welfare. Guess who pays for that? Your tax dollars.

So, she’s out of a job, and now she has no financial resources to get out of her situation even if she wanted to. Her abuser may even punish her for losing her job. She no longer has the social interaction or even the temporary escape of her reality at work. Isolation makes abusers more powerful.

Let Me Tell You A Story

I will tell you about my job I had when I left my abuser, and in the middle of divorce proceedings. I got my first apartment of my own. I had never lived alone before. At 38, every little noise kept me up at night.  I was afraid of my soon to be ex husband finding out where I lived. I didn’t sleep soundly for about a year.

 I was a dental assistant and I found a job at a dentist’s office right next door to my apartment. Working for this dentist was a challenge with my anxiety and lack of sleep. I was ashamed and embarrassed of my plight, so I didn’t tell anyone about what was going on. I made a lot of mistakes. I never did anything major or life threatening, but the dentist was always pulling me into her office to reprimand me. I set up the trays wrong. I didn’t go fast enough for her liking. I had to redo an alginate impression for a teeth whitening trays (The guy had a gag reflex-What could I do?) So I tried harder. The harder I tried, the more mistakes I made. Ever have one of those days? Now I was now afraid I would be out of a job and out on the streets.

I worked there for less than a month. She asked to speak to me one day after some other unpardonable sin I made. If I recall that day correctly, she scraped some nasty, gross stuff off the back of one patient’s teeth. Before I could stop myself, I opened my mouth and let out a disgusted, “Eewww!” The dentist’s eyes bore right through me. I knew it was a faux pas, but I couldn’t help myself. It is a funny story 10 years later, but I was pretty horrified back then. I thought for sure she was going to fire me. And I was right. I was marched swiftly to the back office, and I was crying at that point. I finally told her I just left an abusive husband, and I was afraid he was going to find me. I told her I hadn’t slept in months, and that I was sorry that I was making mistakes. I didn’t have a Kleenex, and she didn’t offer me one, so my snot is running down towards my chin. My eyes are flooded with tears, and I wiped both fluids with my sleeve.

She had this stone cold look on her face, and showed no signs of mercy or compassion.

I begged for another chance, but she said she was in business to make money, and that she couldn’t deal with people making mistakes on her watch. That was it. I was out of work for 8 months. I maxed out credit cards to pay bills. I was almost out of unemployment benefits when I finally got my old job back in the pharmacy. I never worked for a dentist ever again. Those days were so very difficult. I wondered if my life would have been better if the dentist worked with me on my transition, or if she did me a favor firing me because she wasn’t a nice person to begin with.

Don’t be that kind of boss. I’m not saying you don’t have to make money or run your company/department. What I am saying, is a little compassion is in order. Your employee/coworker may be a great worker and a nice person who just needs a little help. A little knowledge, a little understanding can help everyone in the long run.

Here Are Some Tips For Employers:

  • Sit down with your employee in a private place. Ask her what’s going on in her life. Again, don’t make it weird, but just show that you care.
  • Make your office a safe place for her to confide in you. Take that responsibility seriously to protect her privacy. She is probably already humiliated as it is.
  • Ensure her that she has a job as long as she works hard and puts the effort in with the rest of the team.
  • Ask her how you can help her meet the challenges at work and meet productivity metrics. It might be moving her desk to a quieter place in order to focus.
  • It might mean turning off her phone for personal calls.
  • Make sure the building has a security plan in place so she can feel safe at work.
  • If her abuser comes around, let the visitor know that employees aren’t permitted guests during work hours. You can relay a message.
  • If you are aware that she does plan to leave her abuser, be flexible with allowing some time off, or some schedule changes.
  • Never do anything that would make your employee’s situation worse at home. Don’t confront the abuser directly; rather call the police if there is a confrontation at work.

For Coworkers:

  • Support your boss in making it a safe place to work.
  • Don’t gossip about your coworker or spread confidential information.
  • Work as a team. Communicate with her on how you can help each other out.
  • Buy her that cup of coffee and a donut on a bad day.
  • Just be kind. What goes around, comes around.

Thank you to those of you that are already helping!

Every situation is different, and these are only general guidelines, but they go a long way in helping a victim continued to be a valued part of the team and keep her safe.

You can read my series on abuse here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.