Dealing with domestic violence in the workplace (Toughest HR Question)

Employers have moral, ethical and legal obligations to protect employees
By By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

Question: What is the best way to handle a situation at work involving domestic violence?

Answer: Domestic violence at home can frequently become an issue of workplace violence, and employers have moral, ethical and legal obligations to protect employees from the spillover effects.

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace free from violence, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a colleague, customer, visitor, partner or family member.

Domestic violence — which affects people of all ages and ethnic, racial, religious, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds — is defined as violent, threatening or extremely coercive behaviour perpetrated by a family member or a current or former partner.

It can consist of a pattern of ongoing abuse lasting years or one isolated incident.

Domestic violence often includes the following behaviour:

• actual or threatened physical violence or harm, up to and including incidents of serious assault and even homicide

• sexual assault (forcing someone into sexual activities against their will is a crime even if the partners are married)

• stalking and other forms of harassment and intimidation

• threats of harm or actual harm against others (such as the victim’s children, friends, family or co-workers)

• damaging, destroying or threatening to destroy property belonging to the victim or individuals who are closely associated with the victim.

Employers need to minimize the likelihood of domestic violence occurring in the workplace, offer support and resources to assist victims, intervene where appropriate and protect other employees from potential harm.

Specific measures to take

Some of the specific measures employers can take to combat domestic violence in the workplace include the following:

• Develop and communicate anti-violence and harassment policies that include provisions relating to domestic violence.

• Ensure the concerns of employees who report incidents of domestic violence are acted on and taken seriously.

• Perform a violence risk assessment of the premises and the business and implement security measures designed to combat workplace violence.

• Notify reception of the identity or description of an abuser, with the direction the individual is not allowed to contact the employee while she is at work.

• Ban an individual from the premises and call the police if necessary.

• Move an employee’s workstation to a less public or more secure area.

• Remove an employee’s name from the company telephone directory.

• Provide a security escort to an employee’s vehicle or public transit.

• Change an employee’s mailing address, emergency contact details and home telephone number, and ensure such information stays confidential.

• Allow for changes in hours, flexible hours, time off and job-protected leaves of absence where necessary.

• Reassign the employee to a different work location or, where possible, to a non-customer-facing role.

Ontario’s legislation

Ontario also has legislation that specifically requires employers to take measures designed to combat domestic violence in the workplace. Under Bill 168, which amended the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act in 2010, when an employer becomes aware that domestic violence threatens a worker, the employer must take “every reasonable precaution” to protect that person.

In addition, employers have an obligation to warn workers who are likely to come into contact with a person in the workplace who has a history of violence. Presumably, that could include current or former partners of fellow employees.

While some employers were initially concerned the legislation would require them to uncover or investigate incidents of domestic violence and abuse, the legislation only requires employers to take measures to ensure employee safety on the job when they become aware of the risk or reasonably ought to be aware of it.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell in Toronto. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information on Carswell’s HR products, visit www.carswell.com.

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