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The Upstander: Co-Workers,Prevention and the Workplace Impact of Domestic and Sexual Violence and Stalking


On September 11, 2012, Amanda Connors drove up to the front door of the hair salon she managed in South Dakota and confronted Tyrone Leon Smith, the gun-wielding boyfriend of her employee, Heidi Weber. Mr. Smith fatally shot Ms. Connors and then turned the gun on himself A few days earlier, Ms. Weber had obtained a temporary protection order against Mr. Smith, after he was arrested on a domestic assault charge. After leaving jail, Mr. Smith took the children from their babysitter and drove to the salon’s parking lot.  He then entered the salon and tied up the employees, who were later freed upon the intervention of Ms. Weber.1

This tragic event takes place with numbing regularity.  Week after week, the news media report stories of women (rarely men) who are stalked and attacked, or fatally wounded, by current or former husbands or boyfriends at workplaces, frequently after obtaining an order of protection.2 Sometimes the intervention of co-workers, customers or other bystanders alleviates the situation, but often bystanders become caught in the crossfire.  This column will focus on ways in which co-workers can serve as “upstanders” in preventing the workplace effects of domestic and sexual violence.

Beyond Intervention to Prevention

These incidents raise fundamental questions of violence prevention. For example, why has a situation escalated to the point where a perpetrator was able to approach or enter the workplace and threaten violence? Ms. Connors’ action was selfless and heroic, but could her death have been avoided? Could the workplace, law enforcement and others in the community have taken steps beforehand to ensure that Ms. Weber could do her job while Ms. Weber, her children, and the employees and customers of the Cost Cutters salon remain safe?

Everyone in the community has an important role in addressing domestic and sexual violence and stalking. Employers, co-workers, unions, law enforcement, the courts, health care providers, and many other stakeholders all have important concerns and expertise to offer.

Co-Workers as Upstanders

Co-workers can play a significant role in a proactive and comprehensive workplace program focused on preventing and responding to the workplace impact of domestic and sexual violence.  Co-workers, customers or other observers should not directly intervene in a potentially or actually physically dangerous situation without the expertise or training to do so safely.  Likewise, without training or expertise in safe and effective domestic or sexual violence responses, co-workers should not counsel their colleagues who are victims or perpetrators.

Instead, co-workers can engage in a wide spectrum of preventive measures well before any violent or dangerous situation presents itself.  This range of action takes the co-worker from a bystander, which implies passivity, to an “upstander,” who takes positive action.  Actions by upstanders can promote a workplace culture focused on the productive and safe provision of assistance.

Many persons spend as much time or even more with co-workers than with families. Co-workers observe and hear a lot of personal information and may realize before anyone else that something is different with a colleague. Co-workers may notice that a colleague is continually anxious, upset or depressed; that a colleague has physical injuries; that a co-worker is frequently absent; or that a colleague receives unwanted gifts, emails or visits at work, or overhear an upsetting phone call.

At this point, beyond sensing something wrong, a co-worker may have no idea that a colleague is a victim of sexual assault, or stalking, or domestic violence and should not jump to any conclusions. Here is a first instance where the upstander can act.  What should they do? Perhaps the co-worker is uncomfortable interfering in “personal” matters, or doesn’t think it’s their business.  Perhaps the co-worker is resentful that the colleague is missing a lot of work, and that as a result he or she has to pick up the slack. Perhaps the co-worker witnessed an intense argument and is now worried about her or his own safety. On the other hand, the co-worker may want to help but doesn’t know what to do.

Recognize, Respond, and Refer

In the last ten to fifteen years, many domestic and sexual violence service providers worked with employers and unions to develop an approach known as the three Rs – recognize, respond, and refer. The first step, recognition, means approaching a colleague who may be in distress and simply letting them know, in a non-specific way, that you have noticed something is going on: “I noticed you haven’t been yourself lately,” or “you seem upset.” The upstander does not assume the colleague is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, and does not press the colleague to share private details.  The colleague may in fact deny that anything is wrong.

During the second step, response, the upstander shows support for the colleague: “I don’t mean to pry, but you know if you ever need help there are places you can go,” or in the case of co-workers who are friends, “if you ever need to talk I’m here for you.”  Again, the upstander does not press the colleague for information and respects privacy and autonomy.  If the colleague chooses to reveal that they are a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, the upstander should not act as a counselor or social worker, but simply express concern and support for their colleague.

Finally, the upstander provides the colleague with referrals to people who are experts in the particular area of need: the number for the employee assistance program (EAP) (or members assistance program (MAP) in the case of a union); human resources; the national domestic violence hotline; a local rape crisis center; or any other appropriate information based on both parties’ comfort level and knowledge.

This scenario can be adapted for a situation when a colleague may be the perpetrator of domestic or sexual violence or stalking.  EAP and human resource professionals should always be prepared to address workplace and criminal implications, and have relevant referral resources, for employees who may be perpetrators.

Other Factors to Consider

What if the colleague who may be a victim politely declines offers of assistance, refuses to talk to any experts, and is stalked at work by an angry perpetrator? What if co-workers become nervous about their own safety?

Employers have a legitimate concern with maintaining the safety of the workplace or place of business, and often may have a legal obligation to do so. Consequently, many employers require employees to report any suspected or actual threats.  However, some employees (both victims and co-workers) may feel that disclosure will jeopardize their physical safety or their job security. This fear of retribution can keep employees from coming forward until it is too late with information critical to ensuring the safety and productivity of all workers. Employers can assuage safety, privacy and job security concerns by creating clear guidelines for reporting: for instance, placing limitations on the extent and nature of a report, or steps for safeguarding privacy.

A proactive workplace program is key to changing the cultural norms of the workplace so that victims feel that if they ask for assistance to keep doing their job and to keep safe, or if co-workers come forward with this information, they will not be penalized.  In return, co-workers and employers will be aware of performance issues, workplace changes or potential safety threats and can take steps to address them before something bad happens.

In the case of the Cost Cutters salon in Sioux Falls, Ms. Connors apparently was aware of Ms. Weber’s violent relationship.  Perhaps she or other co-workers attempted to connect Ms. Weber with local service providers who could provide expert counseling and safety planning.  An employer who becomes aware that an employee plans to obtain an order of protection can recommend adding the workplace as a location the perpetrator is excluded from approaching.  Employers can also ask law enforcement to issue a trespass order against a third party (after consulting with the victim first to ensure it does not create additional safety concerns).  If employees fear the appearance of a perpetrator at the workplace, they also can alert law enforcement and internal security personnel and prepare a safety plan.

Too often, workplaces only begin to address issues of domestic and sexual violence after a tragedy has occurred. The cost of a preventative measures are far outweighed by the formidable human and economic costs to employees, business, and reputation after a violent incident.

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