Friday, November 21, 2008

Domestic violence: Your coworker's dark secret

CNN Money has an article on domestic violence in the workplace.

Cindy Bischof was not the kind of woman who would normally let a boyfriend get in the way of her career.

Driven, persistent, productive, she was everybody's favorite partner at Darwin Realty, a commercial real estate firm on the outskirts of Chicago. She was a role model to the firm's young women, a mentor to junior brokers, a 43-year-old overachiever: in at 5:30 A.M., networking at lunch, so smart about heavy industry that her peers voted her Industrial Broker of the Year.

Cindy was neither submissive nor easily intimidated - which is why what happened to her on March 7 is all the more shocking.

For nearly a year Bischof had been trying to untangle herself from a soured five-year relationship with an out-of-work salesman named Michael Giroux. After their breakup in May of last year, according to friends, family, and police reports, the handsome and charming Giroux suddenly turned strange and dangerous.

The day they broke up, Bischof changed the locks on her house. That night she went to stay with her parents. Giroux smashed the back windows of her house, broke in, and threw paint all over her furniture, rugs, and appliances.

Giroux began calling her incessantly on her cell phone. He stalked her at her house, at her parents' house, even on the golf course.

Bischof's torment became Darwin Realty's nightmare as her co-workers rallied around her. They helped clean up the damage to her house, which cost her $70,000, according to police reports. The head of Darwin's construction department installed a camouflaged infrared deer-hunting camera in the bushes of her backyard to take pictures of her deck at night.

In August, it caught Giroux there with a rope, making a noose. Darwin's president, George Cibula, arranged for Bischof to move into a rental property 30 miles away in Plainfield so that Giroux couldn't find her. Cibula hired security guards for the company Christmas party. Sometimes Cindy's partners walked her out to her car at night, just in case.

But Bischof was alone that Friday afternoon in March as she left her office and headed to her car, looking forward to joining her parents at her condo in Estero, Fla. Minutes later, Brian Liston, a Darwin partner working in a corner office, heard four gunshots behind him. He turned and there, outside his office window, lay Bischof, face down on the parking-lot pavement. Giroux, wearing a baseball cap and a fake mustache, had been lying in wait at the tire store next door. He shot and fatally wounded her before shooting himself in the head.

While police spent hours investigating the obvious, employees huddled in the hallways and conference rooms as shock turned to horror and then to unbearable grief. "It's still not over," Cibula said months later, choking up. "All you can do is endure the shock of it."

As the boss, he doesn't know what he could have done differently. He couldn't shield his staff from the trauma. No amount of security would have stopped so determined a killer, he believes. "If everybody brings their problems to work, pretty soon you're a psych hospital," he says. "Cindy knew that, and she tried. But we butted our way in anyway because she was our friend."

Domestic violence is still a taboo topic in most of corporate America, and no wonder. Logic won't address it. It carries a great stigma. It raises difficult questions in high-powered workplaces that employ - let's face it - both perpetrators and victims.

Many executives believe the issue has no place at work. What happens at home is supposed to stay at home, especially matters of the heart. In a survey of 200 CEOs sponsored by Liz Claiborne Inc. (LIZ, Fortune 500) last year, most agreed that domestic violence was a serious issue, but 71% said they didn't believe it was a problem at their own companies. Only 13% felt that corporations need to play a major role in addressing domestic abuse.

Soon, though, they may have no choice. Employee attitudes, demographics, and the efforts of some CEOs are converging to drag this issue out of the closet. With so many women in the workforce, and with e-mail, text messaging, and cell phones connecting them to the office around the clock, domestic violence comes to work whether executives like it or not. Employees are well aware of this.

However, a recent large survey by the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas shows as many as 1 in 10 female workers is currently experiencing some form of domestic violence. Additionally, this could happen to anyone - although the article focuses on women, a growing number of men also experience domestic violence.

You get a sense of that in a chilling study of a group of batterers conducted by the state of Maine four years ago to assess the implications for occupational health and safety. Many of the 152 men surveyed described a consuming need to know their wives' whereabouts. They felt compelled to check up on them constantly - by calling or leaving work to see if their wives were where they were supposed to be. The urges were so overwhelming that half said they had trouble on the job, making mistakes or causing accidents, and that the feelings intensified when their wives tried to leave them.

Forget any notions you might have about what makes a person vulnerable. She doesn't have to be weak or somehow masochistic. There is no "type." People we interviewed for this story included an employment lawyer in Kansas City, a Red Cross administrator who worked alongside North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Yale MBA who handled a groundbreaking project for GM, a New York University MBA who's chief of staff to the Bronx borough president, even an FBI agent. (She disassembled her gun when she got home every night and left it in the trunk of her car, having made, she says, a conscious decision: "We were not going to have live fire in the house.")

Anybody, even the strongest, smartest, most talented women - your highest producer, your rising star, your daughter, your granddaughter - can fall victim. "I've met Ph.D.s who say, 'Yes, I was in love with the guy. I got doled out just enough money for food for the kids,'" says Allstate's Tom Wilson. "Money is the weapon of choice, often in combination with other things, because it keeps the victims locked up. It's the keys. If you don't have a car, you can't run away. If you don't have credit, you can't get an apartment."

That's what makes the workplace so central to the struggle. "Economic independence is the strongest indicator of whether or not a victim can leave a batterer," says Stacey P. Dougan, chief professional development officer at the Atlanta law firm Powell Goldstein, who advises companies on how to handle domestic-violence issues.

That means you can count on the abuser to "relentlessly try to interfere with that employment relationship." Work is the one place a stalker can be absolutely sure he'll find his victim. Sometimes it's a target. It's nearly always a flash point. It's the site of a surprising amount of activity in these struggles, as the stories of the women we interviewed demonstrate in chilling detail.

I once recall talking to a student advisor with bruises on her face consistent with being beaten. She said she fell off her bike - I know firsthand what sort of injuries you're likely to sustain falling off a bike, and her injuries were different. Of course, I couldn't ask what happened, and couldn't prove anything. She later died of cancer.

Nothing you can do will stop a truly determined assailant, as Cindy Bischoff's ex boyfriend was. However, domestic violence has to exert a substantial cost on companies. Additionally, the workplace can be a sanctuary for an abused person - and that person's success at work can be a threat to the abuser.

In the US, employers need to be aware of their country's legal complications:

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.

There are bound to be similar legal issues elsewhere, of course.

In any case, this is a difficult situation, and employers should be on the lookout for their employees - but ham-handedness might be do more harm than good.

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