Domestic Violence and the Workplace: Assessing the Risk

Stephen G. White, Ph.D.

Fall 2014 Newsletter

Domestic violence is in the news.  With the recent attention involving professional athletes, awareness is rekindled and an opportunity provided to review domestic and intimate partner violence issues relevant to the workplace.  Although infrequent, incidents do occur of a rejected, jealous husband or partner coming into a woman’s workplace and killing her. If a love triangle exists with a coworker of hers, or the attacker believes such to be the case, the result can be a double homicide, often concluding with the assailant’s suicide. What should threat assessment teams look for, and what are some do’s and don’ts?

Some facts: According to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center1 in Washington, D.C., over 1700 women were murdered by men in the USA in 2012. Over 90 percent were killed by a man they knew. Of that group, 62 percent of the victims were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends – just over a thousand, or between 2 and 3 women a day who are killed by their current or former intimate partner in these acts of femicide. Over half of the women were killed with firearms, usually a handgun. As the Violence Policy Center notes, even though the rate of these homicides against women has dropped over 25 percent in the last 17 years, it remains “unacceptably high.” Femicide is a global problem.  Other forms of intimate partner violence – assaults, threats, stalking – are much more frequent than homicide, with devastating social, emotional, and economic effects on the victims, especially with the persistence inherit in most stalking cases.

However unfortunate for the victims, all categories of intimate partner violence occur most often “at home” – over 78% of the time – behind closed doors and usually not directly visible to others, although friends, family, and coworkers may certainly know of it.2  Locations outside the home for all categories include parking lots, public places, schools, and workplaces, and are estimated to be over 20,000 incidents a year. According to preliminary findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 just 21 employees were killed at work by a spouse or domestic partner – a very low number statistically (presumably the vast majority of victims were women). The data on non-lethal partner assaults of women at their workplace are not reliably established, but such incidents are not uncommon. Much more frequent is workplace harassment of women by their partners – phone calls, emails, notes on their car, surveillance and electronic monitoring – even such things as a controlling husband insisting his wife attach a camcorder to her work computer. Advances in technology – GPS tracking devices, malware, cyber investigation agencies, etc. – have been a boon to tech-savvy stalkers. When a woman comes home from work, even a few minutes late, she may be subjected to harsh questioning about her job activities.  Her going on a business trip can be a trigger for abuse as it feeds the dark imagination of a pathologically jealous partner. Ascending in her career can also be very threatening to such a man, even though paradoxically he may depend on her salary, and demand that she work and hand over her paychecks to him.  Because of these tactics some women will choose to “lay low” in their career, missing out – for safety reasons – on wanted opportunities.

Threat assessment teams should be aware of the general risk factors that may differentiate femicide from non-life-threatening violence, especially when concern arises that a private matter could segue into the workplace.  Kropp and Cook3 have integrated the research and clinical data on intimate partner violence in their chapter in the recently published International Handbook of Threat Assessment.4 The most important risk factors for femicide are:

  • Proprietariness – an entitled sense of ownership of the woman;
  • Firearms availability;
  • Escalation in the severity or frequency of violence;
  • Mental problems, especially a severe personality disorder or depression;
  • Stalking, which precedes femicide over 80 percent of the time5 and leads to general violence as well (hitting, slapping, hair pulling, etc) in over 50 percent of intimate partner stalking cases;6
  • Recent separation or divorce;
  • Severe disinhibition – this composite includes attitudes that support violence, minimizing and denying it, and substance abuse.

In addition to these common sense indicators, red flags relevant to the workplace include:

  • Fixation – the subject’s preoccupation with a woman’s workplace activities and her relationships there.
  • Communicated or implied threats, direct or leaked to third parties, to harm a woman, especially at her workplace, and/or others with whom she works. This and the previous indicator speak primarily to the abuser’s jealousy and need for continuing control of his rejecting partner. Another reason for an attack at the workplace is that an abused and recently separated woman will not want to tell her ex-partner where her new residence is – but he knows he can find her at work.
  • Underemployment – i.e.,an abuser’s chronic unemploymentnot just being out of work, but a pattern of quitting, getting fired, and in general being unmotivated to work. In most cases this is damaging to a man’s self-esteem, even though he may not make the psychological connection, have many excuses, and project blame onto others – and it contributes to his tormenting of his partner. For this he has plenty of time.7

It is important to appreciate the stress on these women, and that they usually strive to hide any signs of their burden and the personal circumstances with which they must cope. The targeted employee is balancing her fear of being harmed, maintaining her concentration on her work, and avoiding possible embarrassment and the perception that she is “weak” or “creates problems.” Although the last thing she wants is for the issue to disrupt or endanger others at her workplace, she may also fear that management involvement could make matters worse.  The upshot is that there are usually delays before management is made aware of a risk posed to the workplace. Sometimes it’s a worried coworker who comes forward, having overheard a threatening phone conversation.

“Why do they stay?” is the question often asked by others. The reasons are complex but often come down to a woman’s hope that the situation may improve, and her fear of leaving – a very dangerous decision which can be fatal and will at least lead to an escalation of abuse and disruption of her life.8

A mistake that employers often make, if less aware of threat assessment strategies, is to not appreciate how much risk-relevant information a targeted employee may provide. Respecting her privacy may be a reason, normally understandable and otherwise appropriate. A common scenario is for a woman to present a restraining order to her security or HR department, which includes the prohibition of any contact at her workplace by her stalker. She may be thanked, and offered an escort to her car at the end of the workday. Assessment is superficial.  At the ATAP national conference this past summer I presented a case with a detective colleague of mine which involved a woman whose company consented to transfer her to another office in a different state. This would enable her to escape her ex-husband who posed a growing threat to her. A well-intentioned act, but the abuser found out and traveled to her new location with a weapon.  He was literally stopped at the entrance to her office building by law enforcement officers who had fortunately been alerted to his plan.

Targeted intimate partner interviews can be conducted respectfully and sensitively, and the rationale explained that interveners are working to keep the victim and all others at work safe. With proper justification and the consent of the employer’s legal counsel, threat assessors may ask personal questions related to abuse, escalation, and workplace fixation.9 The interviewer should possess the assessment skills and convey the confidence and non-judgmental tone necessary to help ease the targeted employee’s concerns. The interviewee may offer useful insights on how she thinks the subject would react to various actions on the part of the employer or authorities, such as cease and desist letters, protective orders, or law enforcement intervention.  The targeted employee’s own intentions are also important to assess. In general, the more committed she is to ending the relationship and the more final the message she has given the subject, the higher the risk. She could also underestimate the current risk posed by the abuser and not recognize a true escalation from a baseline of taunting and threats, previously intended only to control her.

Progressive employers will embrace a supportive, patient attitude toward women in abusive relationships, offering help and time away for professional appointments and personal needs when necessary. In some states it is now required to grant personal time off to domestic and intimate partner victims to address their issues. But this does not restrict an employer from placing a targeted employee on leave for a time as part of a comprehensive strategy to protect the workplace. The issues are proper assessment, justification, and cooperation. A respectful and collaborative relationship between threat assessment teams and employees targeted by outsiders can best protect all parties and keep communication open, avoiding the “silo effect.”

Meanwhile, professional sports organizations may want to look at how their “corporate culture” of training men to aggress on the playing field may spill over for some individuals with risk factors for violence, and provide them with nonviolent counter-remedies to manage the stressors of life off the field – said with respect by a fan.


1 Violence Policy Center. (2014). VPC releases annual report on women murdered by men to mark landmark anniversary of violence against women act. Available at:

2 Violence Policy Center. (2014). VPC releases annual report on women murdered by men to mark landmark anniversary of violence against women act. Available at:

3 Kropp, P.R., & Cook, A.N. (2014). Intimate partner violence, stalking, and femicide.In J.R. Meloy & J. Hoffmann (Eds.). The International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press, USA.

4 Meloy, J.R., & Hoffmann, J. (2014). The International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press, USA.

5 McFarlane, J. M., Campbell,  J. C., Wilt,  S., Sachs, C. J., Ulrich, Y. & Xu, X. (1999). Stalking and intimate partner femicide. Homicide Studies, 3, 300–316.

6 Mohandie, K., Meloy,  J. R. , McGowan, M. G., & Williams, J. (2005). The RECON typology of stalking: Reliability and validity based upon a large sample of North American stalkers. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 51 (1), 147–155.

7 White, S., & Meloy, J. R. (2010). The WAVR-21: A structured professional guide for the workplace assessment of violence risk, second edition. San Diego, CA:  Specialized Training Services.

8 Walker, L.E., & Meloy, J.R. (1998). Stalking and domestic violence. In J.R. Meloy (Ed.), The psychology of stalking: Clinical and forensic perspectives. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

9 White, S.G. (2014). Workplace targeted violence: Threat assessment incorporating a structured professional judgment guide. In J.R. Meloy & J. Hoffmann, (Eds.), The International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press, USA.