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Battling Battering

How to help a coworker who shows up with a black eye.

When a female coworker shows up with a black eye or swollen lip, it's hard to know what to say. But these injuries -- along with upsetting phone calls, missed workdays, and a tendency to be distracted -- may be telltale signs that she's in an abusive relationship. And coworkers can often help.

"The workplace is critical in establishing the employee's safety and helping her feel that she is not isolated," says psychologist Iris Sangiuliano, Ph.D., who's been an advisor for New York City's domestic violence awareness efforts. "The batterer often tries to close her off from family, friends, even her church. Sometimes the only people she has left are coworkers."

The San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund suggests the following guidelines for handling the situation:

o Establish a rapport with the employee. (Sangiuliano stresses that it's better to talk to the employee alone, rather than in a group setting where she might feel put on the spot.)

o Listen without judging. Often a battered woman believes her abuser's negative messages.

o Remind her that she is not responsible for the abuse, and that physical violence is never acceptable in a relationship.

o Suggest that she call 1-800-799 SAFE, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, to find local shelters, counseling, and legal assistance, and to establish a plan for her safety.

o If she's your employee, give her time off to go to a shelter. If she gets a restraining order, distribute the batterer's picture to reception area personnel and inform them that the batterer is not allowed in the office or through the phone system.

o To educate coworkers about the issue, call the National Workplace Resource center on Domestic Violence at (415) 252-8900.