Firms Help Employees Stay Safe

Domestic Abuse

Melissa Morbeck has obvious reasons to be enthusiastic about her work. As manager of compensation and benefits for Hill, Holliday advertising in Boston, she enjoys a responsible, often fast-paced job. She occupies a prime 40th-floor office with spectacular views.

But when Ms. Morbeck uses superlatives to describe her employer, they go beyond paychecks and perks to include something more profound: the support given her as she sought to regain safety, stability, and success after a violent three-year marriage.

"I owe my life to this agency," she says. "They have been absolutely phenomenal."

Domestic violence remains a subject seldom discussed by most American employers. But tomorrow, as part of a nationwide event designed to break that silence, Morbeck will describe the vital role corporate support plays in helping workers affected by abuse.

She will tell her story to more than 100 Boston executives attending a business roundtable on family violence. She will urge participants to reach out to their own employees, as her bosses did to her.

Messages like these will echo through offices and factories Oct. 1, as more than 200 businesses, unions, and government agencies take part in the second annual Work to End Domestic Violence Day. Through meetings, brochures, e-mail, and paycheck fliers, employers hope to heighten awareness of the problem and help workers find solutions.

Nearly 4 million women a year are physically abused by husbands or boyfriends, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, which organized tomorrow's event. Such abuse, the group says, reduces productivity, increases absenteeism and turnover, and heightens the risk of violence at work. It also costs hundreds of millions of dollars in health care, much of it paid for by employer benefits.

"The workplace has become the modern American neighborhood," says Esta Soler, executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. "It's where most people spend a lot of time. Domestic violence is such a significant problem among women that they don't just leave the effects of it at home. It's imperative that we figure out what kinds of supports can be provided in the workplace."

Those supports include counseling abused workers, protecting them from batterers, and helping them find shelters or get restraining orders. Other steps involve training managers and supervisors to recognize signs of abuse and understand how to help. Training also extends to security personnel so that they can take proper steps when a restraining order is in place.

"Most women who are battered are also employed," says Barbara Marlowe, president of the Boston-based Employers Against Domestic Violence, which sponsors the business roundtable. "Many get harassed at work through telephone calls, faxes, and visits. Even if a woman has left her abuser, if she has a job he knows just where to find her."

Seminars and e-mail

Corporate participation tomorrow will take many forms. American Express plans to distribute brochures and fliers, explaining how workers can seek help. Later this month, its employees in New York and Salt Lake City can attend seminars on domestic violence.

At Digital Equipment Corp., 25,000 employees in the United States will receive e-mail messages tomorrow, giving them extensive information about domestic violence. The material will include a national database of community resources.

"Our goal is to try to create a positive atmosphere for people to be able to come forward and speak confidentially," says Bruce Davidson, manager of employee assistance and work life programs at Digital headquarters in Maynard, Mass. "In some cases people may be coming to us just to explore what their options are. They're frightened for their safety and may be frightened for the safety of their children."

The initial focus, Mr. Davidson says, is on security. "Then we try to link the worker with community resources that can work directly with the individual, and work out what plans they may need to make in their personal life."

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sent a letter to all city employees, informing them of the Oct. 1 observance. Tomorrow, city personnel offices will distribute informational material to workers. The mayor is also encouraging agencies to organize events to benefit domestic-violence victims throughout the city.

Polaroid Corp., long a leader in domestic-violence education, now offers a refresher course every other month.

For Morbeck, activities like these are heartening. Sitting in her office, she describes the steps two of her own employers took to help her.

Seven years ago, fearing for her life because of her husband's violence, she confided in managers at the Connecticut firm where she then worked.

"They were marvelous," she says. "They drew up a safety plan, making sure they knew where I was at all times. They took photographs so I had evidence of beatings. They also advanced me a week's pay so I could escape. They were the key to giving me the tools to get out of there."

After a cross-country train trip to the West Coast with $50 in her pocket, Morbeck accepted a secretarial position with Hill, Holliday in Los Angeles. Again she confided in a supervisor. The company gave her paid personal time to return to Connecticut for her divorce trial in 1991. Managers also gave her time off for therapy.

Morbeck recalls, "They said, 'You have substantial responsibilities to fulfill, and we expect you to fulfill them. But you are a member of our family, and we will stand with you.' They did not pity me, they did not treat me as a victim. They treated me with respect and dignity."

Workplace as community

To abused employees who are reluctant to confide in a supervisor, Morbeck says, "You have to begin to trust someone."

Some companies still resist such involvement. "They think if it's a family problem, the solution rests within the family," says Ms. Soler of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. "Families need to be engaged in the solution, but they also need outside intervention."

Defending the need for corporate involvement, Soler adds, "I know we ask our workplaces to do a lot, but I think they're part of the community, and their workers are part of their community. The last thing we want a battered woman to feel is isolated. We have to break the secrecy."

Morbeck agrees. "A place where people work is a microcosm of society," she says. "As an employer, you have to realize the work force is made up of human beings. This is very much a social and moral contract you have with your employees."

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