Tackling domestic violence at work

Manitoba invests in employer, union training so people can recognize signs, take action
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2008

In April, 25-year-old Shannon Scromeda was murdered in her home by her live-in boyfriend. The mother of a four-year-old boy, she also worked in the building services division of the planning, property and development department of the City of Winnipeg and was an active member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Police said they had little contact with the couple before Scromeda’s death, however, friends said the relationship was rocky. So what more could have been done?

Manitoba recently announced it is committing $100,000 to develop domestic violence awareness training for employers. The province said it will work with employers, chambers of commerce and unions to ensure workplaces of all sizes have access to information or training sessions to help recognize and offer support to victims.

“We all have a role to play in countering domestic violence and supporting victims,” said Gord Mackintosh, Family Services and Housing Minister. “Because family violence affects the workplace with a terrible human cost and through lost productivity, we want to ensure workplaces have access to the information and tools they need to take effective action. We want to empower the employers and co-workers of people affected by violence so they know that help is available and how to offer it respectfully.”

The main goal is to eradicate domestic violence in any form, anywhere, said Paulette Fortier, acting director of the Manitoba Family Violence Prevention Program. Many of those victimized spend most of their time at work, and there’s a large, terrible human cost, she said, along with other impacts on work, such as increased absenteeism, turnover, fatigue, emotional instability and reliance on ineffective coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drugs.

“It’s no longer an issue in the home, it’s out there, in the workplace, and people want to be aware and to help,” she said.

CUPE was pleased with the announcement about additional training, said Sheree Capar, national representative for CUPE in Manitoba, and has negotiated language in collective agreements to ensure employers look at the full picture when it comes to situations where domestic violence may affect someone’s work.

“The safety of the target as well as all the workers is of paramount importance,” she said. “There are so many assumptions and myths out there around domestic violence and people really need to understand the effect it has on that person.”

Several provinces have made awareness materials available to employers on the issue of domestic violence before. The Premier’s Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention in Prince Edward Island, for example, states: “People who are abused live and work among us. It is our responsibility to help where we can.” But, for the most part, the programs and legislation are focused on workplace violence.

“We’ve had the first wave, the indignation around abuse at work, and now we need the second wave, whereby personal issues come into the workplace and we need to be vigilant about that, because it is an occupational risk for other people,” said Glenn French, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence.

People quite often assume domestic abuse is a personal issue that has no place in the workplace, he said. They don’t make the link between abuse that may happen outside, and be non-work-related, and the impact at work, in terms of productivity or the safety of all employees.

“There’s usually no mechanism or acknowledgement it should be reported at work, so people don’t, and they live quietly with the abuse, and if someone does come forward and says, ‘I’ve got this problem,’ many people will say, ‘It’s a personal problem, don’t bring it into the workplace,’” said French. “On the other hand, it comes into the workplace, whether you like it or not.”

In 2004, Manitoba decided to provide training on domestic violence to civil servants, which led to the initiative directed at the private sector. The province felt it would be more effective to provide training for employers to not only recognize the signs of domestic violence but to have the tools to know how to approach someone and refer them, said Fortier.

“We don’t expect them to do the counseling but to assist (employees) in seeking support, put procedures and policies in place for domestic violence, ensure there are resources employees can access and know the signs.”

The $100,000 is an initial contribution from the Manitoba government that will go towards the hiring of a two-person team to do training with employers and to provide resources, such as a revised hand-out. The program is still being developed, said Fortier, and the government plans to approach company leaders to gain greater support.

Potential resistance

While there may be resistance from employers unhappy to face yet another demand on company time, Fortier said she has had positive responses. One employer, for example, said he had an employee who often showed up at work with bruises, and excuses, but he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed.

“Generally they want to help but they need the tools and resources,” said Fortier.

The training could involve a morning or afternoon, with followup if required. Participants would learn to look for signs of domestic violence, such as depression, absenteeism or major changes in behaviour.

Employers are willing to take on this new challenge, said Capar, as long as it doesn’t cost them any money.

Resistance should be less than before, said French, after the inquest into the Lori Dupont murder. (She was a nurse killed in November 2005 at her place of employment, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ont., by her ex-boyfriend, who was a doctor at the hospital.)

“(That) did advance the issue,” he said. “There’ll be less difficulty convincing managers; however, I don’t think it’s necessarily an easy sell.”

And the effectiveness of additional training is not guaranteed. Some victims may consider the workplace a safe place to relate their woes, but others may consider the workplace a separate part of their life and not want to raise personal concerns, said French.

“The complexity of it is there are victims who don’t want to report and you don’t want people to be trained in the manner in which they’re expected to go around and sleuth out the victims. But you want them to be able to, if they see the signs, provide guidance and say, ‘We have a program here that will support you, here are your rights and responsibilities, maybe I can come with you and speak to HR or management,’” he said. “So the training is good in the sense that it provides someone with confidence in giving direction about where they can get some help.”


What to look for

Signs of domestic violence

The victim may:

•‑have bruising that cannot be explained

•‑miss work on a regular basis or seem sick more often

•‑be sad, lonely, withdrawn and afraid

•‑have trouble concentrating on a task

•‑receive upsetting phone calls throughout the day

•‑use more alcohol or drugs to cope.

Employers can:

•‑include domestic violence issues in workplace violence prevention policies and programs

•‑educate employees on these policies and programs, appropriate actions to take, signs of domestic violence and resources for victims of domestic violence

•‑develop a safety plan, if an employee reports domestic violence, to ensure the victim is protected while at the workplace

•‑ensure all employees are aware the employee assistance provider is available

•‑encourage the victim to contact a professional

•‑screen for the abuser (with the victim’s permission) by providing a photo or description to reception and security

•‑inform all workplace parties they must report any abuse or violent behaviour

•‑act upon any reports immediately.

Source: Ontario Safety Association for Community & Healthcare