On May 16, 1986, gunshots rang out in the 46th-floor trading room of Smith Barney Harris Upham & Company’s midtown Manhattan offices.
Twenty-two-year-old Richard Wagenknecht entered the building that evening to confront his ex-girlfriend, 24-year-old Susana Jimenez. He tried to pull a ring off her finger, and when she resisted, he shot her in the head, fatally wounding her. Susana’s 35-year-old colleague Charles Walker tried to come to her aid, but Wagenknecht shot him twice in the chest, killing him. Wagenknecht then turned the gun on himself, but he survived.
The image of domestic violence as a “family matter” contained within the home is an outdated and dangerous notion. Often, domestic abuse spills into the workplace–with devastating consequences for victims, their colleagues, and their employers.
A victim may be harassed over the phone or email, be absent because of injuries, or simply be less productive due to extreme stress. If a victim has tried to leave a relationship, the workplace may be the first place an abuser comes looking.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and my office is working to raise awareness of the proactive steps that companies can take to help ensure their workers’ safety. After all, no workplace is immune to domestic abuse. Nearly one in four large private companies reported at least one incidence of domestic violence in the previous year, according to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And one-third of all women killed in U.S. workplaces between 2003 and 2008 were killed by a current or former intimate partner.
The murders at Smith Barney shook Wall Street, and stayed with me for decades–it was one of the first homicide cases I prosecuted as a young assistant district attorney. And while we’ve made great progress toward understanding, prosecuting, and preventing domestic violence since the 1980s, it is still a public health crisis in America–and it still plagues homes and workplaces alike.
Last year, my office prosecuted a man named Michael Kenny for the murder of his wife, Denise Kenny, in the Midtown hair salon where she worked. Michael–who had previously been convicted of violating Denise’s orders of protection against him–attacked Denise in the salon’s bathroom, stabbing her multiple times in the chest, leg, hand, and forearm. Kenny was convicted at trial, and is currently serving 25-years-to-life in prison.
So what can companies do to ensure their employees’ safety? Be aware of warning signs that an employee is being abused, including unexplained injuries and absences, and uncharacteristic anxiety, fear, and depression.
On a basic level, be mindful to use compassion, and always refrain from judgment. One in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. That’s one in four of your female colleagues, neighbors, and loved ones.
In many states, including New York, victims of domestic violence are a protected class, meaning employers may not discriminate against them in hiring, job advancement, or use of time off, and must provide certain reasonable accommodations.
But employers need to be more than just reactive. Companies should have proactive mechanisms in place to support victims, provide them with services, and keep them safe. An office domestic violence response plan can include:
- Identifying an emergency contact person if the victim is unreachable
- Providing a picture of the abuser to security and human resources personnel
- Modifying the victim’s work schedule or location where possible
The New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence’s website offers more information about safety plans and how to detect signs of domestic abuse.
Employers are not expected to be experts in this area. But well before an incident occurs, they should have protocols in place to protect their employees. And when domestic violence does strike, they should know where to turn for help.
Always call 911 if there is imminent danger, but be aware of the other places your employees can go for assistance. In New York City, Family Justice Centers, including ours in Manhattan, provide safe havens with access to services like emergency housing, orders of protection, and specially trained prosecutors under one roof.
Outside New York, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) can connect you or your employee with resources in your city.
From investment firms to hair salons, companies large and small can take proactive steps to protect their employees.
In the 21st-century workplace, let’s not have employees fear for their safety. Employers, help ensure that the victims of domestic violence in your office are survivors.
—Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. is the Manhattan District Attorney.