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Fort Hays University wants to teach businesses how to help employees going through abuse

 A sign at Fort Hays State University
David Condos
Kansas News Service
Fort Hays State University is creating a 10 credit hour certificate that starts in Fall 2023.

People undergoing domestic abuse are more likely to lose their jobs. Fort Hays State University is trying to teach businesses how to change that.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Megan Shepard knows the strain of holding down a job while getting battered by a former partner.

She’s survived it.

But Shepard said she had advantages so many other people don’t. She never needed a shelter. She had family support. And her workplace served as a safe haven.

Yet many people enduring domestic abuse don’t always feel safe at work. Their abuser might be stalking or harrassing them. And that kind of trauma can cripple the focus needed to succeed on the job.

But Shepard’s advantages spared her that and kept financially stable enough to move away from her abuser.

“Moving away from that area kind of just changed my whole outlook,” she said. “It just made my situation better. It made it a better situation for my children.”

Up to 60% of survivors say their abusive partner cost them their job.

A new program at Fort Hays State University tries to change those dynamics. The university created a 10-credit hour program to teach students how to make businesses more welcoming to victims of abuse.

Some courses include professional development, victim advocacy and social entrepreneurship and grassroots social action. The upcoming fall semester marks the first time the course will be offered at FHSU.

Abusers may not be specifically trying to get someone fired, but the additional trauma and stress makes someone less productive. Businesses, consequently, sometimes see an employee as unproductive or unmotivated. That could cost someone a raise or promotion — or their job.

The professors at FHSU said the issue can run deeper than an unmotivated worker and they want workplaces to think more about the impact home life has on employees.

Trying to leave toxic situations is much harder when someone doesn’t have stable financial footing. Without a job, survivors have limited financial options, decision making and economic means.

“When you’re in fight-flight-or-freeze response … you just have to do what you have to do to survive,” said Shepard, a post-graduate committee chair at the Center for Empowering Victims of Gender-Based Violence. “ I didn't have another option, I had to keep my job. I had to provide for my children.”

The program was developed by two professors with backgrounds in criminal justice and business communications. Assistant Professor Ziwei Qi spent years researching gender-based crime and assistant professor Rachel Dolechek has published multiple papers on business management.

Dolechek sees the new course as a first step in a multi-year process. In the short term, the academics hope that businesses will incorporate the school’s training into onboarding programs. In the long term, they hope the program changes the culture of companies to be more survivor friendly.

It isn’t clear how many programs exist like the one at FHSU, but they are rare. Advocates in the field say more businesses need to begin thinking about this work.

Domestic violence costs $8.3 billion a year nationally in lost productivity and increased medical costs.

Sarah Gonzalez, associate director of workplace and economic justice at Futures Without Violence, has worked with businesses on gender-based violence in the past. She said businesses devote money to things like better health benefits to cover therapy sessions or other mental health treatment.

There are also cheaper things that can help.

Businesses could change email addresses or phone numbers so it’s harder for a survivor to be harassed at work. Companies could allow more flexible use of sick time so employees can change their locks or make it to court without losing money. Or corporations could host regular, anonymous surveys of workplace culture in hopes of seeing how many employees might be dealing with an abusive partner.

It’s estimated that one in three women and one in four men in the U.S. have been raped, stalked or physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

“Whether businesses are really aware of it or not, gender-based violence and harassment is having a profound impact on their workplace,” Gonzalez said.

Unless the abuser is showing up to the workplace, a business may only see an unproductive employee as a bad employee.

But Gonazles sees growing awareness of how trauma impacts someone in the workplace.

“When you’re able to look at this through this trauma lens, this lens of gender-based violence and harassment, you realize that something else is going on and that there are steps that one can take to help support someone,” she said.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Shepard's abusive relationship. It was with a former partner.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.