In survey project, student sociologists probe workplace needs of domestic abuse victims

By: Mark Tarnacki

To better understand the impact of domestic violence on workplace productivity in Chittenden County, the Safe at Work Network enlisted the support of Saint Michael's College and Church Street Marketplace to produce a survey of 85 Chittenden County businesses and organizations. The results of that survey were announced publically and for local media at Women Helping Battered Women in downtown Burlington on Monday, Jan. 27.

The three organizations were guided by the 2013 recommendations from the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence. Over the past few months in Vermont, domestic violence has affected the workplaces of many victims of domestic abuse, according to The Safe at Work Network -- created in 2013 by Women Helping Battered Women as a preventive and proactive strategy for building a stronger community

Saint Michael's Sociology Professor Vince Bolduc supervised 22 undergraduate students who researched, developed and executed the survey. Bolduc says that for decades his junior-level Research Methods class for Saint Michael's sociology majors has done a similar large-scale survey project on a topic of interest to campus or wider society. "I may have done 50 surveys by this point in my career, and this was probably the most sensitive subject that I have ever attempted in a survey," Bolduc said. "My studies of religiousness or sexuality were easier." He explained how students found many employers very reluctant to grant interviews and answer questions about this subject because of its sensitivity - perhaps concerned about unwittingly giving "wrong answers" that might expose them to bad publicity or litigation.

"But actually we were just looking for honest answers about how many employers had a personnel policy that took into account the special problems of victims of domestic abuse," Bolduc said. "If they were interested in a template for a modification with their personnel policy, the professionals with Women Helping Battered Women could call them to offer some gentle assistance." Bolduc already has heard that a number of employers have shown interest and will be working towards some modifications of their Human Resources manuals.  

As the first survey of Vermont employers on this topic, the process and questions used in the Bolduc class-run can be adapted and used in other counties and regions of Vermont. The Safe at Work Network's goal is to strengthen knowledge of and response to domestic violence in the workplace, in turn helping to create safer and more profitable businesses. "By talking to employers about the impact of domestic violence in the workplace, encouraging businesses to add domestic violence policies to their personnel policies, and training staff about domestic violence," [the network] aims to create "stronger, safer, more economically stable employment opportunities for victims of domestic violence," according to a network press release. Currently, 10 Chittenden County businesses and organizations have joined the Safe at Work Network.  

Most of the work for this year's survey was done in October and November, Bolduc said, and was conducted by 19 women and 3 men in his class.

By now he's developed a reputation with earlier surveys so that "people from all over call me and I'm in the enviable position of just picking topics - it's always for a nonprofit, and the sponsor always pays for whatever expenses we have – the biggest is usually postage, which can be hundreds of dollars – and they also usually hire one or two students for short-term management or coordination." A a result of this year's project, for example, one of Bolduc's students, Kristen Eilertsen, got a job as an intern at Women Helping Battered Women and was interviewed by WCAX about her work after the Jan. 27 announcement of survey results in Burlington.

Bolduc sees a lot of winners from the survey project: "Student got a great learning experience. Employers should get better productivity and a more effective work force, the college gets good visibility in the community on a worthy project, WHBW gets great publicity for one of their priority projects and a terrific mailing list of interested employers; and the wider community should get improved sensitivity to domestic problems as well as improved worker satisfaction and fewer disruptions."

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