Breaking the uncomfortable silence

Violence in the workplace

We are all part of the solution

Employers can no longer ignore violence spilling out of the home and into the workplace and must move to offer supports for both victims and offenders, according to a Western researcher looking into domestic violence’s impact in the workplace.

Barb MacQuarrie

Barb MacQuarrie has teamed up with researchers at both Western and the University of Toronto to examine the experiences of domestic violence victims and offenders to gain a two-sided understanding of the effects of domestic violence in the workplace.

"If you are in a large organization, you have many victims and many offenders because, when you statistically look at the population and what’s happening, there’s no way to avoid it,” said MacQuarrie, Community Director of Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC).

Twenty-two of Ontario’s Partner Assault Response programs and UofT’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education partnered with CREVAWC and Western and conducted a survey of 500 perpetrators of domestic violence.

Respondents came from all parts of the province.

The vast majority were men in heterosexual relationships who were identified as having perpetrated domestic violence and who were referred to intervention by the criminal justice system.

One-third reported being in contact with their partner or ex-partner during work hours to engage in behaviours that were emotionally abusive or to monitor the victim’s actions or whereabouts.

Of men who engaged in these behaviours, a quarter used work time to drop by the home or workplace of their victims.
Roughly 20 per cent indicated their co-workers were aware of these behaviours.

Importantly, nearly a tenth of respondents reported they caused, or almost caused, a work accident as a result of being distracted or preoccupied by these issues.

Nearly half of the offender respondents said the climate of their workplaces was closed, unsupportive and unfair when it came to dealing with domestic violence issues, and most said they were unaware of resources available to them in the workplace to help them deal with domestic violence issues, and were worried that if they talked about it, they might lose their jobs. In fact, over a quarter of the men did report that these issues did, directly or indirectly, lead to job loss, and made it harder to find another job.

But this study isn’t meant to encourage employers to dismiss offenders of domestic violence.

Barb MacQuarrie presenting at TEDxWesternU 2018

"We’re not doing this work to say to employers: 'You have offenders in your workplace and you need to get them out.' We don’t believe that is an appropriate response at all."

In earlier work, MacQuarrie and CREVAWC Research Scholar and Western professor Nadine Wathen, partnering with the Canadian Labour Congress, examined, in the largest-ever survey of it’s kind, the impact of domestic violence on Canadian workers and workplaces from the victim perspective. It also found that domestic violence is prevalent and significantly effects workplace safety and productivity. Victims report a range of impacts, from influencing their ability to get to work and focus while at work, to job losses because of the violence following them to work. Co-workers are also affected when they know violence is happening, and they often don’t know how to help.

Related work by the Conference Board of Canada revealed that 71% of all employers and 55% of government employers reported a situation where it was necessary to protect a domestic violence victim. But few employers provide training to either managers or employees concerning what to do if domestic violence happens or is suspected.

MacQuarrie is gratified by the impacts of this work, which has been a lifelong passion. The data have influenced legislation in a number of provinces, being used as evidence to support paid leave for domestic violence. Unions have taken up the work for negotiation of domestic violence-specific entitlements through collective bargaining. Employer groups have used the research to support training for managers and staff, including how to be a better ally to co-workers. Increasingly, the workplace is seen as a site of intervention to help victims, and to better manage, and provide support for, perpetrators to stop using violence.

For perpetrators, workplaces need policies for risk management, and those policies need not be zero tolerance – those can do more harm than good.

Instead, treatment and support are a more sustainable solution. For example, the workplace can help accommodate someone who needs to attend a weekly support group.

While it isn’t the employer’s responsibility to make someone leave a violent situation or to demand someone stop a certain kind of behaviour, they do have a responsibility to indicate what won’t be tolerated at work.

For supporting victims, workplaces can commit to training, such as CREVAWC’s Make It Our Business, as well as supportive policies, including flexible scheduling and safety planning.

"With these kinds of problems of relationship violence, historically, our response has been to ignore them, to put them outside of the purview of what we address at work. The cost of ignoring it is too big."

Adela Talbot

Written by Adela Talbot