It is the kind of tragedy that happens far too often in Canada. A mother and her two teenage children were killed at their Ajax, Ont., home in March, allegedly by the woman’s ex-boyfriend.
On average, a woman is killed every six days in Canada by an intimate partner, compared to every 22 days for men, according to Statistics Canada.
And yet in this instance, Krassimira Pejcinovski’s employer had an inkling something was wrong. Pejcinovski had been showing up to work looking tired and pale, and she told Sherry Robinson — owner of Spa Sedona — that her boyfriend had been violent with her.
Robinson even started taking notes of the times she talked to Pejcinovski about the rocky relationship, according to the Toronto Star, and encouraged Pejcinovski to change her locks when he moved out.
In the end, it was Robinson herself who alerted police to the crime scene, after checking up on her absent employee at home.
The tragic event serves as a reminder to employers and employees alike of the perils of domestic violence, both in and out of the workplace. It also raises questions as to how exactly employers should respond to these types of situations.
Knowing when to act
In this case, the employer obviously cared about her employee, and she definitely wanted the woman to be safe.
But she wasn’t an expert in domestic violence, said Barb MacQuarrie, community director at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children in the Faculty of Education at Western University in London, Ont.
“She didn’t maybe have all the resources… that would have helped her to actually formulate a safety plan and not just that but be able to, first of all, identify the level of risk, identify the escalating risk and be able to communicate that to her employee,” she said.
“And I think that’s where many, many times those of us who aren’t experts — so whether we’re talking colleagues, co-workers, managers, supervisor, bosses — we have information but we’re not certain of the significance of that information.”
A big challenge is socialization, as people tend to err on the side of respecting somebody’s privacy, said MacQuarrie, “not on the side of asking questions and letting people know when we notice things that upset us or concern us. We’ve been socialized to mind our own business so that’s a huge barrier that we have to confront, to challenge.”
There’s also a desire to refrain from overreaction, which leads to further hesitation, she said.
“It’s out of a misguided sense of wanting to be respectful, and it also speaks to how stigmatized it still is to be a victim of domestic violence. It’s hard to talk about this, and people still feel somehow that they’re to blame or it makes them a lesser person. So we have to get over those ideas because that will make it easier for us to say, ‘Of course we’re going to talk about this, of course it’s not your fault, of course you deserve help.’”
“The more we can break through that and connect with people who are experiencing abuse, that in and of itself helps to create safety.”
Domestic violence affects the workplace every day, said Patty Coates, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour in Toronto.
“It impacts the person’s productivity. It impacts their focus. It impacts other employees. So I think it’s something that employers really need to look at. There might not be immediate danger, but there could often be that potential. And we’ve seen that, again and again and again.”
“There is a responsibility, even though it may not look like it,” she said.
“That’s where it’s really important that employers are there to help, because women need to know that they have that financial backing, that their job is still secure because they can’t leave those situations without that financial backing,” said Coates.
“And we know that in some cases, it’s not just physical violence, there’s also the economic impact… as well as social. The only place that they might have that social interaction is at work — otherwise, they might be kept in a very tight bubble at home.”
A good employer is concerned about employees and recognizes what happens in their personal lives impacts their working lives, she said.
“That said, they only have a legal requirement to do anything if they feel the threat is going to come to the workplace, so there’s that line between moral obligation and legal obligation.”
On some levels, an employer can only do what an employee will allow, said Jamie Alyce Jurczak, a partner at Taylor McCaffrey in Winnipeg.
“If an employee is telling you about a domestic violence situation, for example, but isn’t leading the employer to believe that the workplace is going to pose a threat, for whatever reason, the employer can only do what they can do. They certainly can’t force an employee to go get help; they can’t force an employee to leave their abusive partner — that would be certainly overstepping boundaries.”
But just because an employer may not have a legal obligation to intervene doesn’t mean it should do nothing, said Jurczak.
“I would suggest that increases liability for employers, not just with domestic violence but if there’s a perceived risk of harassment or violence in the workplace that you ought reasonably to have known about, human rights laws would require you to take some positive obligation with respect to any human rights-based
harassment. (And) under workplace safety and health legislation, you have a positive obligation to try to prevent violence in your workplace to the extent reasonably practical.”
There is a risk to employers in thinking this isn’t their problem, she said.
“How much they are to interfere and what steps they would have to take, what’s reasonable in the circumstances (is debatable), but doing nothing where you ought to have knowledge is not something you can do anymore,” said Jurczak.
“Saying, ‘It’s at home and I have no place there,’ that time has come and gone on certain levels, particularly with more and more overlap between work and home… it would be naive to think that this isn’t entering the workplace.”
If there is a potential risk of violence, regulations require employers to do a risk assessment, a hazard analysis, and to look at the steps needed to try and prevent a safety incident from happening, to do everything reasonably foreseeable to try to protect against the risk, she said.
“Make sure that the employee is very engaged in any discussions and potential solutions that are put in place in the workplace because you certainly don’t want...to make a situation for somebody worse. This is very delicate stuff.”
In Ontario, domestic violence is a hazard under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, so if a worker knows about that hazard and it’s likely to happen in the workplace, he has to report that to a supervisor as a legal duty, said MacQuarrie.
“For example, if somebody’s showing up at work and asking questions and being aggressive, they have to report that.”
And if there’s a protection order in place, the employer would be expected to take appropriate precautions, such as alerting security, said Jurczak, “in a way that not only ensures people are safe but balances the privacy that’s necessary for the employees involved.”
If there’s an immediate or perceived threat of violence, such as a person acting erratically, people should not hesitate to call the police — even if the person involved does not request that, she said.
“The employer may have to override that to the extent they perceive a general safety risk to the workplace... These are judgment calls that are made in the moment, with limited information, in a delicate situation. It’s not easy stuff.”
It can be difficult if a person discloses her situation to a colleague in confidence, and that colleague feels obligated to report it to human resources, said Jurczak.
“HR has to find a way to manage that confidential disclosure,” she said.
“(They could) work through that employee and try to get the EAP (employee assistance program) information to the employee that needs it, without hurting the trust relationship.”
It can be a matter of HR or the supervisor setting up a meeting with the employee to say, “‘We’re here to support you, there’s things we noticed, is there anything we can do to help you?’ Not doing it in a disciplinary way, but doing it in a supportive way, and opening up that door,” said Coates.
“And they may not say anything right at that moment, or they may spill everything, and it really all depends on the sensitivity of the person who’s talking to them, as well as ensuring confidentiality.”
Having somebody from a women’s shelter come in to talk about the situation and do a danger assessment, or having police come in to do an in-person risk assessment and provide information or some kind of intervention is also advisable, said MacQuarrie.
A support network at work can really help, and some unions are now providing women’s advocates trained to deal with this type of situation, said Coates.
“It’s really important that the supervisors or managers within a workplace are well aware of what those warning signs are, what possible triggers are, and to head up the support network.”
“What workplaces can do and employers can do is first be supportive and accommodating within the workplace,” she said.
Don’t attempt to come up with solutions in solidarity, but work with the employee to find solutions, said Coates. “What can we do to help you make you feel safe here?”
Watching for warning signs
There are a variety of warning signs that may indicate an employee is in a potentially violent relationship, with the most obvious being a person actually stalking the victim or causing disruptions at work.
“The other ways it can come in, and what sometimes employers don’t recognize, is the phone call — an abusive partner calls every day to make sure they’re actually at work… or they send abusive text messages,” said Jamie Alyce Jurczak, a partner at Taylor McCaffrey in Winnipeg.
Other signs include an employee’s repeated lateness or increased absences, along with physical signs of abuse or mental health issues such as depression.
Training can help people identify warning signs such as someone being more anxious or jumpy at work, or taking secretive phone calls, said Patty Coates, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour in Toronto.
“Often we say, after the fact, ‘Oh you know, I thought that’ or ‘I saw those signs,’ and (it’s about) knowing that ahead of time, and then knowing how to handle that… what is that process, am I supposed to talk to the employee or go to a women’s advocate or supervisor or HR?”
More often, it’s about having a conversation if things don’t seem to be going well for an employee.
“We don’t want it to feel like a tattle-tale kind of environment; we want it to be a supportive thing, so those conversations are best had in the context of good training and having time to examine, explore the problem, but also how co-workers, supervisors, union reps, how they can all be part of the problem and the safety net,” said Barb MacQuarrie, community director at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children in the Faculty of Education at Western University in London, Ont.
Culture and leadership are critical, she said.
“Leadership needs to face this head-on — they need to be talking about this. If they are really clearly communicating that people who come forward will be supported, their jobs will be protected, that’s going to make a huge difference.”
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