Q: A month or two before the coronavirus pandemic, my boss had his four grade-school-age daughters in the office. One of them, maybe 8 years old, was apparently acting up, but I didn’t see it. Her dad caught her while passing my desk. He grabbed both her arms and was shaking her, speaking in a low and intimidating voice in a language I don’t understand. I saw the shaking and the terror on the child’s face.
I read in another advice column about a husband who shook his wife, and the adviser called that abuse. If it is abuse when done to an adult, then it’s abuse when done to a child, right?
I’m appalled at myself for saying and doing nothing. It has bothered me since it happened, and I often play out scenarios in my head on what I should have done. If I had stepped in, I would have had to look for another job. Maybe I need to look anyway. He’s not pleasant to work for.
Once we are all back in the office, what could I do if the situation happens again? I’m sure it’s happened since. I’ve just not been a witness with us all working from home.
A: Most parents struggling to balance work and child-care demands simultaneously in the past year have probably found themselves losing patience with their offspring more than usual, possibly within sight or earshot of colleagues on virtual meetings.
But this pre-pandemic incident with your boss and his daughter goes beyond raising his voice or giving her The Look. And if he treated his child that way in front of others on an ordinary day, who knows what he’s been like at home during lockdown, with no outside witnesses.
Some will dispute whether what you saw even constituted abuse, or argue that you shouldn’t judge people on how they discipline their children. For what it’s worth, my view is that laying angry hands on a child or partner — anything that would get you charged with assault if you did it to a stranger — is abuse, regardless of how any moral or secular laws define it.
Many workplaces offer various forms of support for employees who are victims of domestic violence, but what about when an employee is a suspected abuser? Also, while most workplaces (should) have clear policies on what constitutes inappropriate behavior among employees, or between employees and clients, there’s no such handbook governing employees’ interactions with their family. Complaining to HR might put an end to such incidents in the office, but that won’t help the victim.
So please forgive yourself for not knowing what to do in the moment. Now that you’ve processed what you’ve seen, please heed your gnawing conscience and contact the experts, such as the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at childhelphotline.org or call 800-4-A-CHILD.
They can advise you better than I on how to intervene if you witness abuse in the future, including ways to divert and defuse without further endangering the child or yourself. They can also advise you on whether and how to report what you witnessed to the appropriate authorities or community resources.
Even though your boss wields economic control over you, you still have more power than you realize. If nothing else, it can make all the difference to an abuse victim to receive a message from the outside saying, “That’s not OK, and you deserve better.”
And yes, do start putting out feelers for jobs elsewhere — partly so fear of losing this job doesn’t stifle your compassionate impulses, and also because your boss, by your own account, is “not pleasant to work for.” Even if he knows he can’t get away with grabbing and shaking employees, he may be engaging in other abusive and bullying behaviors toward you that have damaging mental and emotional effects. That’s not OK, and you deserve better.
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In response to my recent column on remote workers enjoying a break from microaggressions at the office, here is an example of other forms of microaggressions (and in some cases, possibly overt discrimination):
“I am a white, Jewish woman in my late 50s who has been on the receiving end of numerous microaggressions related to religion/ethnicity and age. These incidents have come from white and Black colleagues and have included snide remarks; antisemitic slurs; repeated attempts at religious conversion; and persistent and unwelcome questions about my religion, ethnic symbols and foods, and religious practices. They have also included remarks that reference my status (e.g. referring to someone as a “little old lady”). Like all members of minority groups, I also “code-switch” at work. I avoid discussing religious holidays, foods, or practices and avoid in-group slang expressions or speech inflections. Microaggressions are hurtful and insulting to all who receive them.” — Emily [last name withheld], Washington, D.C.