Domestic violence: Why HR should care

Private problems often cross into the workplace, so HR should be concerned about employees experiencing domestic violence beyond feeling empathy.

Domestic violence: Why HR should care
Despite what some employees posit, HR cares about employee wellbeing, so most would work to help  employees who were in an abusive relationship, but there is also a serious business case for recognizing the signs and knowing how to help.

A recent study from Justice Canada finds employers lose about $7 million a year to domestic violence through loss of productivity, absenteeism and turnover. That doesn’t include health costs or indirect impact on the workplace culture.

Most employers underestimate the implact domestic violence on the productivity and safety of the workplace, according to Barbara MacQuarrie, community director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children.

“Employers don’t think about how it crosses rom the domain of the home to the domain of work,” MacQuarrie said. “Unfortunately, we have been unlucky in Canada to have a few cases that illustrate that.”

The cases she refers to include Windsor nurse Lori Dupont, who in 2005 was stabbed by her ex-boyfriend in the hospital where they both worked, and the 2007 murder of Bramalea teacher Aysegul Candir, who was shot in the parking lot of the school where she worked by her husband, who she had recently left. Reports at the time indicate Candir had talked to her employer and the school had taken steps to improve her safety, but unfortunately had not predicted that her husband would come to the school while she was working.

Some of the signs of abuse at home can be misread as irresponsibility or carelessness on the part of the employee as abusers will often take steps to prevent their partner getting to work such as hiding keys or taking public transit passes, or damaging uniforms.
HR needs to start asking questions when they see changes in behaviour or receive requests that may indicate their employee is trying to hide information from their current or former partner. For example, if an employee keeps trying to change shifts or is taking leave at short notice with poor excuses it’s worth asking them whether there are any factors they need help with.

“When we sense there’s trouble going on, all our socialization tells us it’s private so don’t ask questions, but we need to learn to ask questions about people’s safety and what’s happening in people’s lives,” according to MacQuarrie, who is discussing the topic at this week’s HRPA conference. “It’s about knowing how to bring the subject up and how to open the door for this conversation without putting them on the defensive.”

On Page Two: Backing up empathy with policy.
While a manager or HR person can feel and express empathy and concern, it’s key to have policies that back up their words with action.

“When you have a culture that says this isn’t something you need to be ashamed of, you can expect help and support, that’s when people will come forward at earlier and earlier stages,” MacQuarrie said. Employees need to feel safe to talk about what is affecting them, whether that is domestic violence or other problems in their personal life. The more information an employer can gather, the more likely they can find an early resolution without a long term impact on the employee and organization.

MacQuarrie also stresses that employers don’t need to be experts in domestic violence to support employees. Even the smallest centres will have two key resources available to them – the police, and women’s shelters – both of which have trained experts who can help.

Help MacQuarrie and her colleagues at the research centre, which is based at the Western University, build Canadian data. Anyone 15 years or older, whether or not they’ve experienced violence, can participate in their survey here:   

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