What to do when you’ve identified warning signs that a member may be being abused?

The most important next step when you’ve recognized warning signs of domestic violence is understanding that isolation is the foundation of abusive relationships. Too often people witness abuse, identify warning signs and risks but end up sitting alone with this information because they think it is a private matter. As abusive situations escalate, so too does the isolation for everyone involved. The more isolation, the greater the risk of serious harm.

Seek support and advice for yourself, and share your concerns with a person in your workplace who has been trained on domestic violence or a community agency that has expertise. If there is not an expert in your workplace, consider getting training yourself.

When talking to a member you suspect is being abused, approach them with genuine care and concern. Your role is NOT to solve the problem—you are there to offer support. Find a balance between avoiding the warning signs and wanting to solve the problem; instead, you want to respond by “being with” the worker experiencing violence.

Always remember that warning signs do not necessarily mean someone is being abused. Never jump to conclusions.

Helpful responses if a member discloses abuse?

  • “I believe you”
  • “It’s not your fault”
  • “I care about you”
  • “I’m worried about your safety”
  • “I will support you and whatever decision you make”
  • Offer to go with the member to speak to their supervisor or a community expert.
  • Have information ready to give them on how to find help at work and in the community.
  • Speak to them about the importance of Safety Planning. Assure them that there are professionals who can help, including the local women’s shelter or the Domestic Violence Coordinator of your local police service.
  • Assure the member that you will help them speak to the employer about special accommodations at work and remind them that the employer is obligated to keep work safe for everyone.

How to move beyond hesitation around talking about domestic violence at work?

Talking about domestic violence can be difficult. Here are some helpful things to consider when you suspect someone may be impacted by domestic violence at work but feel hesitant to address it:

If you feel like it’s none of your business…
…consider that an abusive relationship will only get worse as time goes on.

If you don’t know what to say…
….start with expressing concern and care from the heart and focus on being a good listener.

If you’re worried you will make things worse…
….remember that doing nothing puts everyone in the highest risk of danger.

If you’re worried you might be at risk of violence at work because you spoke up… 
….you can also always look to resources for help, and report any threats to the police. Remember that employers are obliged to keep workplaces safe.

If you’re concerned about workplace confidentiality…
….always aim to balance confidentiality and safety. Workplace safety is the law, therefore you must take every reasonable precaution to protect workers.

What to say if a member denies the abuse

It can be very difficult for someone experiencing domestic violence to ask for help, and they may be afraid of or feel protective of the person who is acting abusively. If a member denies abuse and you remain concerned:

  • Remind them that the offer stands to talk to you any time
  • Share with them the warning signs and risk factors you’ve identified and you may also want to share this website with them or offer for them to look at it on your own computer or phone (abusers often monitor their partner’s own devices)
  • Remain compassionate; do not get frustrated, impatient or angry with them

Although it can be difficult to respect the decisions of others, the victim’s choice is always most important. You might want to reach out to a supervisor or workplace expert and say, “this may be nothing, but I’m worried about…”

If your concerns are immediate and there are high-risk signs, call the police.

What obligations do I have to report domestic violence at work?

Legal obligation to report domestic violence in the workplace in Canada varies by each provincial/territorial occupational health and safety legislation.

Similarly, each workplace and union will have different policies on reporting domestic violence.

Ensuring the workplace is safe is an obligation of all employers.

How can I help a member access resources?

It is incredibly important to help a member find what supports are available regarding domestic violence in your workplace and in your community.

Each workplace should have a directory of resources in your own community and experts in the workplace on domestic violence. If not, please click here for a list of shelters, crisis lines, and various organizations committed to helping people impacted by domestic violence.

If the member is willing, connect them with the Domestic Violence Coordinator of your local police station.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

Note: Abusers frequently monitor their partner’s or ex-partner’s phones or computers. When referring a member to online resources, offer for them to access the resources on your own device, or print them off for the person experiencing abuse to look at.

What do I do if I suspect a member is perpetrating domestic violence?

By ignoring the warning signs that a member may be abusive, the workplace remains dangerous for everyone.

If you’ve identified warning signs and risk factors, you should:

  • Choose an appropriate time and place to approach the abuser when they are calm
  • Be direct and calm about what you’ve observed. Always stick to the facts.
  • Tell them their behavior is their own responsibility. Do not make judgements about the abuser as a person
  • Don’t validate any attempts to blame others
  • Tell the abuser the behavior needs to stop
  • Do not try to force them to seek help or change
  • Express your concern for the wellbeing of the victim, children, and the abuser themselves
  • Avoid arguing about the abusive behavior. This could make the situation more dangerous
  • Call the police if the victim or children are in immediate danger

Note: Calling the police could create additional challenges for the person experiencing abuse. Before involving police, consider how it might affect the victim. Take special consideration if the victim has recently regained custody of children, is not a Canadian citizen, is Indigenous, is racialized, is LGBTQ2SI, and/or has a criminal record.

If they deny the abuse:

  • Continue to reiterate that you’re concerned for their partner or ex-partner’s wellbeing, their family and the abuser
  • Keep communication open and provide them opportunities/resources for support
  • If they deflect responsibility, minimize the situation, or blame the victim, always reinforce that the behavior is not ok

What to do if both the victim and the abuser are members?

All possible accommodations should be made so that the person experiencing violence feels safe at work. This might mean that arrangements are made so that the victim and abuser do not work together (adapting schedules, changing locations).

In the event that an abuser is facing discipline or job jeopardy, the legal Duty of Fair Representation may require that the union represent a member who is abusive.

Always remember that domestic violence isn’t a “fight” between two members. Although both members deserve fair representation, every effort needs to be made to ensure safety for everyone in the workplace. Abusers need to know that their behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.