Domestic violence: a workplace issue

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Domestic violence can have serious implications in the workplace – decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, higher turnover rates and more demands on health care.

Under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act, or bill 168, organizations in Ontario have a legal obligation to take every reasonable precaution to protect domestic violence victims in the workplace.

While employers in other provinces may not be legally required to implement a domestic violence policy, clinical manager at FSEAP (Family Services Employee Assistance Programs) Linda Hochstetler said they still have an ethical responsibility to their employees.

“As a national EAP, we have used bill 168 to address violence … regardless of whether the law applies in that particular province.  It`s really about best practice and managing risk and that is important to all organizations,” she said.

Your employee assistance program is the best place to start when considering a domestic violence policy for your workplace, and appropriate community services should be part of the plan. “While EAPs have all kinds of counseling support, family support and critical management support, they shouldn’t try to replace services that are being offered elsewhere [in the community] and may be more effective,” said Hochstetler. “Organizations should be connected to the right services in the community.”

Recognize the signs

According to Community Director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, Barbara MacQuarrie, warning signs of domestic abuse often appear as on-the-job performance issues.

Some warning signs are:

  • uncharacteristic or increased absenteeism and lateness
  • increased errors or inconsistent work quality
  • the employee seeming distracted or unable to concentrate
  • the employee wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the season or wearing sunglasses indoors – to cover up bruising
  • disruptive personal visits to the workplace by the employee’s (ex-)partner

While it’s important to address concerns with the employee, managers should see warning signs as just that and avoid the tendency to jump to conclusions. “It`s important to remember to not make snap judgments, speculate or fill in the story. Approach the employee and ask if they are ok and if they need help,” said MacQuarrie.


A workplace domestic violence strategy should be based on a needs and workplace risk assessment – which can be provided either by the Ministry of Labor or your local police service –specific to your organization.

A good domestic violence policy should include the following:

  • Public education materials displayed in communal areas referring victims and abusers to community services
  • Regular training and education about domestic violence  
  • Decreasing the public visibility of the victim. This may mean removing the victim from duties that require them to interact with the public, changing the victim’s e-mail address, removing the victim from the company directory, moving the victim’s desk so it is not by a window or close to reception
  • Allowing flexible shifts to accommodate appointments with counselors or lawyers
  • Placing the victim at an alternative location if the workplace has multiple sites
  • Arranging priority parking
  • If the organization has on site security, arranging an escort to accompany the victim to their car
  • Ensuring there are no gaps between the victim’s workplace safety plan and the safety plan in place for their home and community life

According to MacQuarrie, dealing with domestic violence begins with addressing our own assumptions and social norms. “It’s fundamental to be able to have difficult conversations in the workplace and we have to really start by looking at our own attitudes,” she said. “Domestic violence is not just an individual problem, it’s a social and workplace problem.”


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