Employees in a staff meeting at Polaroid Corp. were teasing a colleague about his impending divorce when one asked him how he would get by alone.
Suddenly, the plant maintenance worker grabbed an ax and started swinging it at his hecklers. Later, in psychiatric treatment, he revealed that on the previous night he had held a knife to his wife's throat and threatened to kill her.
Domestic violence is spilling over into the workplace, either directly as in this instance, or indirectly, causing diminished productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover and rising health care costs.
While most companies still don't see violence at home as relevant to what happens at work, a handful of others are acting to stem the losses.
"It's an issue to which companies should be turning their attention," said Richard Gelles, a University of Rhode Island professor of sociology and psychology who has researched family violence over the last 25 years.
The Bureau of National Affairs estimates that domestic violence costs companies from $3 billion to $5 billion a year.
Gelles estimated that about 1 million days of work are lost each year as a result of domestic violence. But conflict and stress at home can affect employees' job performance even when they manage to put in full days: Many suffer from illness, depression and lack of attention, Gelles said.
The U.S. surgeon general's office estimates that 20% to 30% of emergency room visits by women result from domestic assaults, and that perhaps as many as 1,400 women are murdered by a husband or boyfriend each year.
Polaroid began to think about the connection between worker productivity and abuse at home about 10 years ago through the company's employee assistance program. An incident stirred the company to action, said Jim Hardeman, manager of the program.
The performance of a female employee, a 17-year veteran, began to slide. One day she arrived at work particularly late and was confronted by her male boss, with whom she had worked for five years. In response, the woman verbally attacked her superior, who suggested the two visit the employee assistance program office together.
In the course of counseling it came out that she was a battered wife and knew of several other women in similar situations within the company. A counseling group was organized for the women, who cut across ethnic and socioeconomic lines, Hardeman said.
Polaroid started looking not only at employees who were possible victims of abuse but at those they suspected might be offenders.
In January, the company will begin training managers and supervisors in how to spot and handle employees on both sides of the problem.
Still, some executives believe a company should not be interfering in what happens at home.
"Why would an employer have in place a plan to deal with someone's private life?" General Motors Corp. spokesman Chuck Licari asked. "Domestic violence is not an issue for General Motors."
Gelles maintains that companies not paying attention to the issue are shortsighted.
Although there is statistically little likelihood that the abuse will translate into real physical violence at work, if it does it can be a significant problem for a company, he said. Labor Department research shows that employee confrontations with personal acquaintances resulted in at least 39 workplace homicides in 1992, the last year for which there are statistics.
Moreover, he said, there are the economic costs.
The workplace is a reasonable point of intervention, Gelles said. Employee assistance programs are potentially useful and viable ways to provide counseling and other help for both victims and offenders. If a man is at risk of losing his job because of his actions at home or at work, he is more likely to agree to counseling, Gelles said.
United Healthcare Corp. has established domestic violence programs or provided seminars for about 500 of its 5,000 corporate clients over the last four years, according to Jude Miller, the health maintenance organization's director of operations.
Several companies are also concerned and have started focusing significant resources on the issue of family violence.
Polaroid contributes heavily to battered shelters for battered women, while Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1992 launched a campaign to draw attention to the problem.