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Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act names domestic abuse as a form of workplace violence.Getty Images

If the now-infamous video of Ray Rice hitting his then-fianceé in a hotel elevator has renewed attention on domestic violence, public outrage over the National Football League's poor handling of the situation has put the spotlight on how employers respond to such allegations. Yet many organizations have no formal policies to help employees who are the victims of domestic violence or to deal with those who are accused of it.

According to those who work with victims of domestic violence, it's vital that employers take steps to protect employees from such abuse and deal quickly with those who are accused of it. The best approach, they say, starts with educating employees about the risk factors and warning signs of domestic abuse, establishing clear policies and procedures to deal with both victims and the accused, and reaching out to community agencies for assistance.

Barb MacQuarrie, community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at the University of Western Ontario in London, cites an incident in which a woman was stalked by her partner as a good example of what to do.

The employer contacted an outside agency for help and did a risk assessment to gauge the potential for the violence to escalate, understanding that the most dangerous time for the victim is often right after she leaves the relationship. The company created a safety plan for the employee, gave her time off, and encouraged her to get a restraining order that included the workplace. That situation eventually de-escalated.

Things were more complicated for an Alberta company that employed both the victim of domestic assault and the perpetrator, her husband, who had tried to strangle the woman.

Shannon Leigh, a training and business development associate with the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters, said the company nurse quickly implemented a plan based on the company's procedures. The company separated the two by scheduling them to work different shifts. Staff helped the woman connect with a shelter, notified her supervisor and brought in a trainer to teach employees about recognizing and preventing domestic violence. Ms. Leigh said the company did not fire the offender for fear of escalating the situation. Fortunately, it proved to be the right call.

If these cases seem shocking, so are the statistics surrounding domestic violence. In 2009, Statistics Canada said that 46,918 incidents of spousal violence were reported to police, including 65 spousal homicides, which accounted for 11 per cent of all homicides in Canada that year.

Another StatsCan report, the 2009 General Social Survey, found that nearly 1.2 million Canadians aged 15 and older reported being physically or sexually victimized by a partner in the preceding five years.

While experts say it's preferable to have some training before approaching someone at work whom you suspect to be affected by domestic violence, you may be able to initiate a conversation if you are trusted. Ms. Leigh said the conversation should begin with non-judgmental statements based on changes you've observed in someone's behaviour. You might say you've noticed the person has been late for work, or appears to have an injury. Then wait patiently for an answer.

"Be someone who cares. If you're not a friend, then be a citizen, a neighbour," Ms. Leigh said.

In Ontario, the move to recognize domestic violence as a workplace issue got a boost in 2010 when Bill 168 amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act to define violence as a workplace hazard and named domestic abuse as a form of workplace violence.

"The bill creates a positive obligation on employers to conduct risk assessments and to take steps to protect workers from domestic violence in the workplace," employment lawyer Daniel Lublin said.

Marylin Kanee, director of human rights and health equity for Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto, said the hospital has long had formalized policies and procedures to handle domestic violence. Its resources include a website, mandatory e-learning programs and a bi-annual symposium. Mount Sinai also gets help from outside agencies and provides resources through its employee assistance program.

For workplaces looking to establish similar protocols, Ms. Kanee advises appointing a co-ordinator, and assessing your organization's capabilities. "You don't want to be scrambling when a situation arises."

A good starting point is to outline your company's policies and procedures. "Give a definition of domestic violence, lay out who has responsibility, and who they report to," Ms. MacQuarrie said.

Then outline practical steps. "At minimum, it would outline safety, planning, and risk assessment procedures. Develop a safety plan that looks at the safety of employees and co-workers, clients – everyone. Procedures also need to consider what accommodations you can make available, things like flexible scheduling, and ideally paid but [also] unpaid leave," she said.

Ms. MacQuarrie emphasizes the importance of linking with community support agencies. "Every employer doesn't need to be an expert in domestic violence … Every police service has a domestic violence co-ordinator, and there are shelters in every community."

Warning signs that your co-worker is being abused

  • Change in performance, especially acting distracted
  • Unexplained injuries or bruises
  • Clothing inappropriate for the season or heavy makeup
  • Increased absenteeism or lateness
  • Isolation, emotional distress
  • Dropping hints about trouble at home without being explicit
  • Receives high volume of personal phone calls in workplace (or texts and e-mails)
  • Disruptive personal visits to workplace by present or former partner or spouse.

Sources: from interviewees and Make It Our Business. For risk factors on domestic violence and signs someone may be an abuser, visit

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