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Domestic abuse can be a barrier to career success for women, according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Being in the right workplace, however, can not only reduce the impact of domestic abuse on career outcomes but can also help women with coping and recovery, the study found.

UBC Sauder professor and study co-author Karl Aquino explains the research findings and what managers can do to support women who may be dealing with domestic abuse at home.

Karl AquinoWhy is domestic violence an issue in the workplace?

While it’s a common perception that intimate partner aggression is a private, non-work issue, we found evidence of a spillover effect into people’s jobs. Employees who reported higher levels of intimate partner aggression had lower job performance as reported by their supervisors and were also less likely to display voluntary behaviors outside of their formal job requirements, such as helping others with heavy workloads. As a result, these employees were less likely to be rated as promotable by supervisors.

We looked at a range of aggressive behaviours— not just physical abuse— using data from a large sample of married and employed women in the Philippines. We matched surveys completed by their supervisors about their performance and promotability. For some we also followed up a year and a half later and found those with the most tumultuous relationships were less likely to have been promoted.

Our findings suggest that domestic abuse is a major life stressor that requires employees to expend psychological and emotional resources to keep themselves together at home, which then leaves them with fewer resources to expend on their jobs.

How can the workplace environment have an impact?

We found that employees who perceived their organizations as being supportive were less negatively impacted by intimate partner aggression. We asked women about how supportive they find their workplace and discovered that the right working environment can act as a safe haven by offering a sense of psychological safety and by helping employees feel valued. In this sense, the employer was like a friend that you can count on to help you deal with difficult times. Your employer isn’t a friend, of course, but research shows that employees can think about organizations in this way.

Feeling like an important and valued part of the team can boost someone’s self-worth and give them a sense of belonging, which can help restore some of emotional and psychological resource loss resulting from domestic abuse. Making sure someone’s career isn’t impacted is particularly important for people who suffer from traumatic life events, as economic independence and self-reliance are important predictors of recovery.

What can the managers do?

Managers are not usually in the position to be able to ask their employees personal questions, and targeting specific employees can put them in an awkward position. What they can do is provide a supportive workplace environment that benefits everyone, regardless of their home lives. Part of this is about making it clear that the organization values employees’ contributions and their well-being. Policies should include confidential use of support resources and education of managers on how to sensitively respond to family issues that become apparent. Enabling flexible work arrangements can also be helpful in some cases as this could give employees the time to seek out professional help to deal with their domestic challenges.

The study, Does Domestic Intimate Partner Aggression Impact Career Outcomes? The Role of Percieved Organizational Support, is in this month's issue of Human Resource Management.