When a local business was rocked by tragedy, SAFE Alliance helped them create a pledge to keep the workplace safe.
By Elle Bent, Photos courtesy of SAFE Alliance
TRIGGER WARNING: This article shares details of domestic violence, the shooting death of a woman and suicide. Reader discretion advised.
Austin-based company Voltage Control suffered an unimaginable tragedy last year when they discovered the loss of their employee and friend Jennifer “Jenni” Robertson to family violence. Thirty-six-year-old Robertson and her 6-year-old son were found fatally shot in their home last October. According to the Austin Police Department, after shooting Robertson and their son, her husband took his own life. Robertson, who was the company’s head of operations, was not just an employee but a friend.
“It was deeply tragic for the entire company. She and Douglas [Ferguson], our founder, were very, very close friends in addition to being coworkers,” says Rowan Halliday, operations manager at Voltage Control. “She had an incredible impact on the company. She had been designing all the processes and systems, and so when that happened it understandably shook the entire company both on a professional and an emotional level. She’d been a friend to everybody here.”
With their grief, Voltage Control made the decision to proactively avoid letting a tragedy like this occur again. After a grief counselor provided service and helped build the healing process amongst Robertson’s coworkers and friends, the company decided to partner with The SAFE Alliance, an Austin-based organization whose mission is their name: to “stop abuse for everyone.” SAFE offers prevention, advocacy and services for those who have been affected by abuse.
“One of the most powerful things you can do with grief is turn it into action,” says Halliday. So that’s what Voltage Control did.
The SAFE Pledge is Born
Beginning with a belief that it is everyone’s responsibility to support those living with abuse, Voltage Control developed the SAFE Pledge as a result of their partnership with SAFE.
In honor of Robertson’s memory, SAFE Pledge promises to provide resources and training to companies who take the pledge, in order to learn how to prevent these tragedies in the future.
“The goal of [SAFE Pledge] is to help organizations and individuals be able to recognize abuse,” says Julia Spann, SAFE’s chief executive officer. “To create safer workplaces and whenever possible, to have more people understand it, recognize it and work to intervene or prevent it.”
Halliday joined the Voltage Control team in January and quickly jumped on to the project of working on the pledge. She has been instrumental in the project since she joined.
“Immediately Douglas asked me, ‘Do you want to be a part of this?’” says Halliday. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I am very passionate about this issue, and I began helping pull some of the ideas into concrete structures. We collaborated with SAFE on the language of everything. We had a lot of great meetings with the folks over at SAFE to get the intent turned into reality.”
When organizations take the pledge via the SAFE Pledge website, they are able to publish their own internal policies to implement. Organizations are encouraged to share these policies in order to promote the Pledge and keep the conversation surrounding abuse and abuse prevention going.
SAFEty on the Inside
Voltage Control has worked on policies that are informed by their own experience and by their collaboration with SAFE. These policies include a no-questions-asked employee emergency fund, revisions to their confidentiality policy and a requirement of multiple emergency contacts.
“When Douglas was trying to figure out what was happening on the day that Jenni died, the only emergency contact we had for her was her husband. So, we’re actually initiating a policy of asking our employees for two emergency contacts,” says Halliday. “Like most of the policies that are coming out that we’re building in response to the SAFE Pledge, they have broader applications than just family violence. For example, if an employee is traveling with a partner and something happens, if that partner is the emergency contact, we wouldn’t know who else to call.”
Companies who take the pledge will nominate at minimum two employees to become SAFE ambassadors, who will receive comprehensive resources and training from SAFE to implement into their company. Companies with fewer than eight employees may nominate, at minimum, one person.
“The second part [of the pledge]is to make a commitment to send employees through what we call base training,” says Spann. “That’s really about achieving a safe environment.”
The nominated employees will go through base training with SAFE and review their organization’s policies to ensure they are trauma-informed and effective. The training is a total of three hours long and costs $500 a seat.
“For all of us, as humans, we are going to at some point in our lives run into somebody who has been hurt by abuse; maybe it’s sexual abuse; maybe it’s domestic violence,” says Spann. “Being able to know what to say to this person and how to respond is always very helpful.”
The training SAFE provides teaches participants how to recognize the warning signs of domestic abuse and then how to have conversations surrounding the abuse, especially with potential victims. The training provides the space for people to practice open conversations, which are often avoided due to feelings of discomfort.
“We can introduce how to have conversations with people that don’t scare them off or make them feel ashamed or that it’s their fault,” says Spann. “We can help people really understand wording that can be used, that is supportive and engaging and never, ever shaming.”
More than Training
The fight to end abuse doesn’t stop at training. The pledge encourages companies to stay continuously involved with SAFE, or any similar organization dedicated to fighting family violence local to them, if not in Austin.
“Sometimes you have an employee who is experiencing family violence; they don’t know what’s going to happen if they talk to their manager about it,” says Halliday. “Don’t know what’s going to happen if they ask for a few extra days off to move out of a dangerous situation; they don’t know to expect any empathy. If an organization has specifically taken the time to take this pledge, designate representation, make training and resources available, then somebody who’s experiencing family violence can have that expectation that there’s a safe place to talk about it.”
In Texas alone, the Texas Council on Family Violence reported that 183 women were killed by male intimate partners in 2020. (This is in addition to the 40 men killed by female intimate partners or the five people killed by a partner of the same sex.) In 2019, the Austin Police Department and Travis County Sheriff’s Office reported a combined total of over 9,600 family violence cases. In 2017, the Texas Department of Safety recorded over 195,000 reported cases of family violence alone. According to SAFE, 1 in 3 Texans may face family violence in their life.
“Although domestic violence is extraordinarily common and prevalent, the business sector frequently doesn’t know about it and would not know what to do,” says Spann. “[The pledge] will make for a stronger, safer, more united workplace that helps people feel respected and cared for.”
Unfortunately, Voltage Control was not unique when it came to a lack of resources and training surrounding family violence. That’s where the idea of the SAFE Pledge began—a need to provide resources that weren’t there before. Participating companies have access to tools and structures that support employees who may be experiencing or exposed to abuse at home. Taking the pledge helps companies avoid the potential grief that domestic abuse can bring. The pledge also raises awareness of the prevalence and pervasiveness of family violence, allowing victims to be heard and cared for. When signed, company leaders affirm their support to their employees.
“Using a workplace focus is the first time this has been done,” says Spann. “Truthfully, the impetus of it was brilliantly completed by Voltage Control after their workplace was shattered.”
We All Have to Work Together
In addition to the pledge, Voltage Control and SAFE launched a $5,000 scholarship for survivors of domestic abuse as a way to provide tools for financial freedom. The scholarship covers the cost of Voltage Control’s facilitator certification training program.
“For someone who has experienced family violence, it can be a great opportunity to build job skills they might not otherwise have, as well as to build personal and professional skills,” says Halliday. “When someone has been in a situation where they’re experiencing family violence, often financial abuse is an aspect of it; sometimes people who have been in situations like that don’t have the ability to find jobs that allow them to support themselves.
“If we don’t talk about family violence, if we don’t talk about how we can support one another, more tragedies like Jenni will happen,” Halliday continues. “The only way to prevent situations like that and to prevent other organizations from experiencing that level of grief and loss is to bring forward discussion and policy, and the best way to do that is to speak openly about the importance of supporting survivors and the importance of reaching out and being aware. We will not end family violence, we will not end abusive situations unless people are willing to be open and talk about them. We all have the capacity to end family violence. We all have to work together and speak out.”