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Domestic violence: Responsibility for employers with staff working remotely

March 23, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Kelly VanBuskirk

Photo: Charday Penn/Getty Images

In a period when a pandemic can have employees working from home, leading to increased family stress, it’s prudent for human resources leaders and senior management to be concerned about the risk for an increase in domestic violence.

With heightened employer awareness of, and legal responsibility for, workplace harassment and violence, the question has been asked: Does legislation that requires employer action against domestic violence go too far?

In other words, is there any place for managers in the homes — and even the bedrooms — of their employees? The answer is “yes.”

Too many Canadian workers have suffered domestic violence, and it’s often perpetrated in plain sight of co-workers. For employers, the question is simple: If you knew that one of your employees was being attacked, would your decision to act depend on whether they were at work?


A major problem

Domestic violence is a major problem in Canada and in much of the world. Relationship power dynamics being what they are, shocking numbers of our family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers are abused by people who purport to love them. The abuse takes many forms and is carried out in victims’ homes and in public. Research tells us that a surprising number of acts of domestic violence are carried out in victims’ workplaces, leaving co-workers in an ethical dilemma: to do something about it or remain silent. In recent years, legislators have been imposing obligations on employers to combat domestic abuse.

It’s a shame, really, that discussions about domestic violence prevention in the workplace are sometimes prefaced with references to the economic costs that employers incur as a result of the behaviour, through lost work time, employee distraction and other consequences.

While domestic violence costs Canadian employers money, the tragedy is that employees — other human beings — are being violated. If there are ways to reduce the horrific impacts of domestic violence, we should all be active participants, especially when the victims are our co-workers.

Defining domestic violence

Domestic violence has been defined several ways, but the Ontario Health and Safety Council has proposed this meaning:

“Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour used by one person to gain power and control over another with whom he/she has or has had an intimate relationship. This pattern of behaviour may include physical violence; sexual, emotional and psychological intimidation; verbal abuse; stalking; and using electronic devices to harass and control.”

The occurrence of this violence is shocking. According to 2014 research published by University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, approximately one in three Canadian workers has been victimized by domestic violence. While all workers are at risk, the research suggests that women and transgender workers are particularly vulnerable.

It found:

  • Seven per cent of women are currently experiencing domestic violence; 37.6 per cent had experienced it in their lifetime
  • 4.1 per cent of men are currently experiencing domestic violence; 17.4 per cent had experienced it in their lifetime
  • 29.7 per cent of transgender/other are currently experiencing domestic violence; 64.9 per cent had experienced it in their lifetime
  • Overall, 6.5 per cent of people were currently experiencing domestic violence; 33.6 per cent had experienced it in their lifetime.

Critical role for employers

Employers can play an important role in saving their workers from this abuse, since co-workers often have opportunities to witness it. On this point, it has been found that 53.5 per cent of domestic violence has continued in the victim’s workplace in the form of abusive telephone calls, emails and text messages, stalking and abuser contacting co-workers.

If employers train their workforces in the dangers and signs of domestic violence, there will be better chances to provide support, interventions and ultimately protection to victims. Some of the most common risk factors that have led to domestic violence deaths are:

  • a history of domestic violence
  • the couple had an actual or pending separation
  • the perpetrator was depressed (diagnosed or undiagnosed)
  • obsessive behaviour was displayed by the perpetrator
  • the perpetrator had threatened or attempted suicide
  • the victims had an intuitive sense of fear
  • the perpetrator displayed sexual jealousy
  • there were prior threats to kill the victim
  • excessive alcohol and/or drug use was involved
  • the perpetrator was unemployed
  • there was a history of violence outside of the family
  • there was an escalation of violence
  • there was an attempt to isolate the victim.

What employers can do to support victims of domestic violence:

  • Implement a policy that educates employees on domestic violence and what they must do if they see signs of it.
  • Ensure all employees are trained and informed of the organization’s protocols for supporting victims of domestic violence — whether there are shelters, leave options, psychological support, and additional supports the organization will provide (e.g., cell phone).
  • Provide annual training on the subject so it’s never just a one-on-one conversation. Knowledge of the issue and awareness of your organization’s care for victims of domestic violence may be all that some employees need to come forward. Repetition and reinforcement show the organization’s commitment.
  • Ensure that every report of domestic violence is addressed in an expedient, confidential manner. Work with employees to ensure they’re aware of their rights. Through employee and family assistance, have them talk with a lawyer for legal advice, and encourage or engage police involvement when appropriate.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. Kelly VanBuskirk is a partner with Lawson Creamer in Saint John, N.B.

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