Joining forces Featured

4:17am EDT January 2, 2002
In early 2000, a man drove past the front gate of The Limited's Morse Road campus, walked by the front desk and went straight to the work area of his domestic partner. He threatened her life, then left the building.

The next time he came to the company's offices, he was stopped at the front desk and escorted from the premises by security.

Less than two weeks after the first incident, he returned a third time. Security guards stopped his car at the front gate and called police. Officers searched the car -- and found a gun.

The situation might have ended tragically had The Limited not internally stepped up awareness of family violence in 1998.

"There's a real-life case where she felt safe to come forward," The Limited vice president of public affairs Al Dietzel says of the victim's reaction after the company implemented programs suggested by the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, founded and chaired by Abigail Wexner.

"One of every four women at some time in her life experiences either physical or emotional abuse," Wexner says, rattling off just one of countless statistics illustrating the prevalence of the problem.

Think your company's safe? Reluctant to touch such a sensitive issue? Worried you won't have the resources The Limited did to even address it? Take another look.

Outlining the problem
Before the formation of the Coalition in 1998, Dietzel was visiting the East Coast to see what community organizations the company could support there.

Moved by a video he saw at the House of Ruth, an organization providing assistance to homeless and abused people in Washington, D.C., Dietzel returned to Columbus to share the tape with Abigail Wexner.

"Both of us were in tears," he says of their reaction to the violence shown on the video. "She said, 'We need to do something about that. Let me think about it.'"

Wexner didn't think very long.

Just two weeks later, she had convened a group of community leaders from hospitals, law enforcement, social services and other agencies and asked them what they needed to help them overcome family violence in Columbus.

"They said, 'If the business community got behind this issue, it would take on a completely different stature,'" Wexner remembers.

Still, she knew the problem was much more complex.

"I was probably a little nave going into it in terms of how comprehensive the work was going to be in order to make some strides," she admits, looking back on the first three years of work. "However, I was not daunted by the time. I knew this was not something that would be an easy solution."

In what Dietzel calls strategic moves characteristic of Wexner, she formed a coalition of business and community volunteers divided into different task forces to deal with family violence in all areas of the system: Legal, health care, faith community, business community/public education and victim services.

"The goal is really to change the way we as a community think about domestic violence. Until everyone sees it as their problem, you won't see a change," Wexner says, pointing out that, for example, a neighbor needs to feel empowered to see a victim and get help. "The challenge is really to get that victim to come forward and get the help she really needs. The cycle is frightening. Once it begins in a house, it goes on for generations."

Into the workplace
Wexner also knew family violence doesn't just stay behind the private doors of a home. Statistics, she says, show that 75 percent of victims abused at home are also harassed at the workplace by the offender.

She outlined the problem to her husband, Les Wexner, chair and founder of The Limited, where 85 percent of the associates are women. Ninety-five percent of all domestic violence is male to female, studies show.

He agreed something should be done about the family violence issue, and the Coalition began working with executives at The Limited to set up policies regarding domestic violence in the workplace.

Dietzel stresses the simplicity of implementing measures at the company:

  • The effort began with a meeting of Les Wexner and the CEOs of The Limited lines of business. He explained the company's policies and gave them manuals they could include in the Franklin Planners they all use.

  • Arnold Kanarick, The Limited's executive vice president and chief human resources officer, then sent a letter to all employees. It outlined domestic violence statistics, included a brochure with more information and stressed the company's stance: "As a company, we are saying within our own buildings and stores, and to our communities: There's no excuse for abuse."

  • In women's and men's restrooms at the company, The Limited placed cards with national and local domestic violence victim hotline numbers as well as a number at the company where victims could confidentially seek help. "We also put the cards in the bathrooms used by visitors," Dietzel says. "It sends a message to vendors and customers."

  • Employees in security, management and human resources were trained to recognize signs of domestic violence and how to direct victims to social services in the community. "We've trained HR and security so if a supervisor comes in and says, 'I don't know what to do with Sally, she must have 30 (personal) calls a day,' in the old days we would warn her: If it doesn't stop, you'll need to leave the company,'" Dietzel says. "Now we know to ask: 'Sally, is there something going on where we can help you?'"

Results were swift.

In his first 30 years as director of security at The Limited Inc., Jerry Merritt remembered only one, maybe two, cases of domestic violence being reported from the 6,000-plus employees of the company.

In 1999, more than 80 employees confided in supervisors or security that they felt threatened or wanted to seek help; in 2000, the number topped 100.

Those numbers tell Dietzel the company has successfully communicated to employees that they'll get a sympathetic ear and help if they need it.

"It's more what we don't do than what we do," he says, acknowledging that some business owners may have a hands-off reaction to addressing such a sensitive issue within their own walls. "We don't give advice, we simply tell the victim where to go for help."

"We're not in the business of becoming a social worker, a counselor," Dietzel says. "It's simply providing places where they can go to get help.

"We found out the worst thing you can do is give direct help -- 'I think you should leave him.' We are not equipped, we are not trained, to give direct counseling, and it can work against you."

In more serious cases, the company is more aggressive in providing assistance.

"We do such things as give a woman a cell phone and tell her to use it: 'Call police; here's our security number,'" Dietzel says.

"Mainly what we did is change our attitude and let people know we're here to help," he says. "It's a culture, a climate where women feel comfortable to step forward."

The Limited's actions have brought benefits besides the obvious one of keeping the employees safe.

"The other thing I think you'll find is we've saved some good people from leaving," Dietzel says. "We've helped them go through a crisis. It also boosts morale for their co-workers."

The Limited's leadership on the issue has proven successful in attracting participation of other businesses. A forum held for the top employers in Columbus brought in representatives from 99 of the 100 companies invited to learn how to handle domestic violence in the workplace; subsequent forums have been directed at small business.

Shortly after representatives of Resource International Inc., a 150-employee engineering consultant company in Westerville, attended one of the forums, executives there gave employees a flier explaining the company's support of the Coalition and offering phone numbers employees could call for assistance.

Within a few short months, an employee told her supervisor about family violence in her home, and they went to Vice President Marcia Majidzadeh for help.

The family business loaned the employee money for legal fees, gave her an advance on paychecks so she could provide for the needs of her children and gave her additional time off to deal with her problems.

Unfortunately, Majidzadeh says, the woman went back to her partner, a decision frequently made by victims.

Still, Majidzadeh says, the incident shows company's involvement in the Coalition made employees feel comfortable in approaching management to seek help with family violence problems.

"There is definitely a feel in our organization, an open door policy, that if you need help, you can go to someone," she says.

She understands that business owners watch the bottom line, and says taking a stance against family violence could end up helping the company.

"If you help someone, really listen to them," she says. "you're going to help yourself because this person's going to come in more productive. But you're also going to help this person. No one in the workplace wants to lose a good employee."

Even the smallest of companies, which perhaps have no human resources or security departments, can address the issue of family violence, Dietzel suggests.

For example, he says, a company's receptionist and the CEO's secretary are often those most in contact with employees at a small business. Those two individuals could be trained to direct victims to sources of assistance. Employees could be notified that the company will not tolerate violence and informed that they can get assistance by contacting those two employees.

"That little thing would be a morale booster for that little company," he says, noting the action would have three effects.

It would elevate those two employees to a position of being empowered to help employees, enhance the CEO's image to one where the employees see he or she really cares about them, and put offenders in the company on notice that their actions against victims will not be tolerated.

"Caring for the safety of your people is simply the right thing to do, and having a zero-tolerance for violence in a business is not only the right thing to do, it's also good business," Dietzel says regarding advice he'd give to other business owners regarding the issue. "In terms of sending a message to employees that you care, I cannot think of a less extensive, more direct way to do that than to provide a note to them: If there's violence in your life and you'd like to talk to somebody, please call one of these three numbers. I think that will come back to you as people will feel differently about you as a CEO, and people will feel differently about your business."

Staying on task
Wexner brushes aside facts and figures that are evidence of lost productivity and work time due to family violence issues faced by employees.

"It's of interest, but the compelling thing to me is you're never going to get someone to do something on that fact alone," she says of attaching monetary values to the effects of domestic violence. "You've got to get people to see they have an obligation to employees to act as responsibly as they can."

To enhance the program in the Columbus area, the Coalition continues to raise awareness by training business employees and helping companies establish policies to deal with violence in the workplace, says Joel Dixon, an account executive hired by the Coalition to work directly with businesses to maintain their policies.

"Victims put themselves in a lot of danger when the perpetrator is aware that they are seeking help," says Karen Days, executive director of the Coalition. "We want to make sure we can help them in a way that doesn't revictimize them or put them in more danger."

Wexner is heartened to find that sponsors of the Coalition are offering more than dollar bills to the effort.

"People like Kroger and Bank One say, 'We'll help with the funding, but we'd really like to take you up on your offer to address the issue,'" she says.

Dixon has been working to implement family violence policies and awareness programs at Kroger, Children's Hospital, The Huntington National Bank, Nationwide, The Columbus Dispatch, the City of Columbus and Worthington Industries as well as The Limited Inc. All are among in-kind or monetary sponsors of the Coalition, but he's also been contacted by and begun working with other Columbus area companies to implement the program.

In three to five years, Wexner guesses, the Coalition may have a proven program to expand to other communities -- which already have requested information on its activities.

Gail Heller, executive director of CHOICES, a local agency that provides comprehensive services to victims and survivors of domestic violence, says that while statewide organizations such as the Ohio Coalition on Sexual Assault and the Ohio Domestic Violence Network have tried to address the entire issue, the Coalition Against Family Violence focuses on the Central Ohio and Franklin County area.

"Most of the larger cities across the country have some coordinating council or some body that focuses on the issue within the community. There have been different attempts over the years to try and pull something together," Heller says. "I think Abigail has had the best success of all the attempts. The Coalition is focusing on the full range of issues of violence that occur in the family environment, where organizations like ours deal more specifically with abuse that occurs between adults."

Wexner, she notes, is also tackling issues of child abuse and elder abuse.

"She probably does have the broadest view in this area," Heller says.

Having so many community representatives included in the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, Heller says, will make it easier to meet goals.

"I think (the Coalition) has helped our community increase awareness of the issue and really make people understand and see that it really isn't a problem that is only existing behind somebody's closed door and shuttered windows," Heller says. "If it's happening behind closed doors, it really does extend into our schools and our workplaces and our churches and all those places.

"When people become more aware of a problem in a community, it's harder to ignore it. It's harder to hope somebody else will deal with it," Heller says. "It's more of the community's responsibility to deal with this issue now."

The long road ahead
Wexner is ready to commit her time and effort to what she knows the Coalition will need to make progress against family violence.

"I kind of think the work we've accomplished so far is not even the tip of the iceberg. In terms of really delving into the problem, it's going to take years," she says.

Already, however, the Coalition has, among other accomplishments, given information to more than 100,000 employees by educating more than 200 businesses about family violence and implemented a training and education program for businesses and other local employers. More than 2,000 human resources and security personnel representing 23 companies have received training.

Wexner says she took on the challenge of curtailing family violence knowing it would be tough.

"This is not the most glamorous issue," she says, noting the privacy matters and the sensitivity required. "If I didn't necessarily want to do it, I'm not sure anyone else would want to take this on."

More important, however, she felt a responsibility to respond.

"If you say women and children are being abused next door to you and there's something you can do about it," she says, "don't you have to?"

How to reach: Joel Dixon, Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, Joel Dixon, (614) 722-5905 and Karen Days, (614) 722-5960; Marcia Majidzadeh, Resource International Inc., (614) 885-1959 or marciam@resourceinternational.com; Gail Heller, CHOICES, (614) 258-6080 or www.choicesdvcols.org. Contact Al Dietzel, The Limited Inc., and Abigail Wexner through the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence at 722-5985.

CHOICES website