Why do workplaces and unions need to be involved in domestic violence awareness?

November 27, 2015

One in three workers have been impacted by domestic violence at work and over 80 percent of victims report that their work was negatively affected. Poor work performance, difficulty concentrating on the job, lateness and missing work can leave victims vulnerable to discipline at work or job loss.

Canadian workplaces are largely unprepared to respond to domestic violence and as a result workers have been harmed at work. 

Often perpetrators of domestic violence will target a victim’s workplace as a means to access the victim, since work typically is a consistent place in one’s life which remains unchanged and predictable. Even if a victim has moved out of an abusive home, perpetrators may still be able to access them at their workplace. 

Supporting members impacted by domestic violence is important. Ensuring the victims of domestic violence remain employed can:

  • Reduce the risk of abuse provide an avenue for information and support
  • Prevent victims from feeling trapped in the relationship due to financial dependence
  • Be a way for abusers to get help

How can union stewards, joint OH&S Reps, and other union representatives respond to domestic violence at work?

In order for union stewards, human resources people, and joint health and safety reps to respond to domestic violence at work, they must understand what it is, as well as how to recognize warning signs and risk factors of domestic violence. 

Domestic violence is any form of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse including stalking and financial control. Domestic violence is different in each situation, however it is always a pattern of behavior used by one person to gain power and control over another in an intimate relationship. 

DV can occur between current and former partners of any age. It occurs in people of all racial, economic, and religious backgrounds, amongst people with disabilities, and exists in both same sex and heterosexual relationships. 

What are the warning signs that someone may be a victim of DV?

Some warning signs that someone may be experiencing domestic violence may include: 

  • Physical injuries such as broken bones, black eye, loss of hearing which victims may attribute as “accidents” or “from being clumsy” 
  • Inappropriate clothing for the season (such as long sleeves or turtle necks in the summer or wearing sunglasses indoors) 
  • Uncharacteristically late or absent from work, wanting to work extra hours to avoid going home
  • Change in job performance: errors, slowness, lack of concentration
  • Sudden signs of anxiety and fear
  • Making special work requests (such as to leave work early) 
  • Generally acting isolated and quiet
  • Emotional distress including sadness, depression, or suicidal thoughts 
  • Minimizing or denying harassment or injuries
  • Excessive phone calls, reluctance to respond to phone messages. Others at work may overhear or witness insulting messages intended for the victim 
  • Sensitivity if people ask about home life or trouble at home
  • Disruptive visits in the workplace by past or current partner
  • Fear of job loss
  • Sudden appearance of gifts (such as flowers) after an apparent dispute between the couple 
  • Using drugs and/or alcohol to cope 

These warning signs are intended to help direct your intuition and ask questions. Never jump to conclusions. Even if you think someone may be abused according to these warning signs, it does not mean that they are in an abusive relationship. Allow this list of warning signs to spark dialogue with a member. 

What are the warning signs of abusive behaviour?

When a person is engaging in abusive behavior at home, they may not be recognized as an abuser at work. Some common warning signs of abusive behavior in a relationship include: 

  • Putting their partner down 
  • Dominating conversations
  • Checking up excessively 
  • Suggesting they are the victim 
  • Isolating the victim 
  • Acting as if they own their partner 
  • Lying to make themselves look good 

Some workplace warning signs of abusive behavior include: 

  • Is absent or late due to a conflict at home
  • Repeatedly contacting their partner during work 
  • Bullying others at work
  • Blames others (especially their partner) for their problems
  • Denies problems in general 
  • Acts defensively when challenged and cannot take criticism 
  • Acts superior than others in their home 
  • Controls current or past partners activities 

How are abusers impacted in the workplace?

Perpetrators of domestic violence also are negatively impacted at work by their abusive behavior. Many abusers find their work performance is negatively impacted, that they have a hard time concentrating when at work, and can be at high risk of causing a workplace accident due to distraction. 

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 and 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 couple make the situation more dangerous
  • Call the police if the victim or children are in danger 

If they deny the abuse: 

  • Continue to reiterate that you’re concerned for the wellbeing of the victim, 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 victim 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, abusers need to know that their behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

Who is most at risk for domestic violence?

All domestic violence is harmful. Although both men and women can be victims of domestic violence, women are most commonly victims of abuse and men are more commonly perpetrators. Women are most often victims in high risk situations, with the most serious injuries, and have the greatest likelihood of being killed by domestic violence. 

Some women are more vulnerable or face increased barriers to accessing domestic violence services or support. Indigenous women are 5-7 times more likely to be killed by abuse than non-Indigenous women. 60% of women with disabilities experience violence in their lifetimes, and women between the ages of 15-24 experience the majority of police reported violence. Immigrant women and women in rural communities are also at high risk due to lack of access to resources. Workers who identify as transgender report more prevalence of domestic violence in their lifetime than non-trans workers in Canada.

When is a situation high risk?

Just as some victims are at higher risk, some circumstances can lead to particularly dangerous domestic violence. 

High risk factors include when the abuser: 

  • Has access to the children
  • Has access to a weapon 
  • Has a history of abuse 
  • Shows obsessive behavior 
  • Threatens to harm or kill the victim if they try to leave 
  • Threatens to harm children, pets, or property of the victim 
  • Has threatened to kill themselves
  • Has hit or choked the victim 
  • Is going through major life changes (such as losing their job, is going through a separation, has depression) 
  • Is convinced the victim has another romantic partner
  • Blames the victim for worsening their life 
  • Refuses support and help
  • Supervises the victims actions, phone calls, emails, text messages, or follows them in public
  • Is unemployed
  • Is commonly using a substance such as drugs or alcohol
  • Disregards the law 
  • Has attempted to isolate the victim from friends or family 

Other signs that a victim may be in serious danger are when a victim:

  • Has just separated with the abuser or is planning to leave
  • Is fearful for their life or their children’s life
  • Cannot see any problems or risk with the relationship
  • Is in a custody battle or has children from another relationship
  • Is involved with another relationship
  • Has no access to a private phone or computer  
  • Faces other obstacles such as not speaking English or not having Canadian citizenship 
  • Has no friends or family involved in their life 

The more risk factors that a situation embodies the higher the danger. If a risk factor is present in a situation, seek expert advice for safety planning, and encourage the victim to have a local women’s shelter or the police do a risk assessment. 

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 victim. 

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

SNCit! See it, Name it, Check it

Three steps you can take to when talking to a member is the See it, Name it, Check it (SNCit) system: 

  • See it – learn the warning signs, and treat your suspicions and concerns seriously. 
  • Name it – name the warning signs as a concern. Always stick to the facts, as a bruise does not necessarily mean abuse. You might say “I saw bruises” or “I heard yelling” and “I am concerned about you”. 
  • Check it – ask questions such as “are you ok?” and confirm your assumptions on whether the member is experiencing abuse. Remember that hearing these questions can be very difficult for someone, so be patient and allow your member to feel as though they are still in control of the conversation. 

Some examples of SNCit conversations:

“I’ve noticed you’ve been late to work more often lately. Is anything bothering you?”
“You looked upset after that phone call today. I’m worried about you. Are you ok?”
“I overheard your partner yelling at you on the phone today. Are you ok? Do you want to talk?”

The goal of these conversations is NOT for you to act as a therapist, but rather for you to express concern and open a door for support. SNCit conversations work best in a private setting, such as an office with the door closed or away from where others can hear/see the conversation. 

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 – ensure 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 a victim of abuse 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 are: 

  • Remind them that the offer stands to talk to you anytime
  • Share with them the warning signs and risk factors you’ve identified, you may also want to share this website with them
  • Remain compassionate; do not get frustrated, impatient or angry with them

Although it can be difficult to respect the decisions of others, the victims 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 visit Domestic Violence Resources and Links 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