Many of us have been conditioned to believe that domestic violence is a problem that affects only a handful of individuals – the victim of violence, the abuser, and any children who live in the household where the abuse takes place.

This simplistic picture, however, is fundamentally flawed. Domestic violence is a shockingly complex and costly problem. Not only does it affect society as a whole, it can also have a real and substantial impact on the workplace. Domestic violence leads to increased employee absenteeism and dramatically reduced workplace productivity, along with a host of other challenges.

The Scale of the Problem

The Canadian Women’s Foundation has published staggering statistics that highlight both the scope and the cost of domestic violence in Canada.

For example, one out of every two Canadian women over the age of 16 reports that she has been the victim of physical or sexual violence at least once in her life. Sadly, for a variety of reasons, many of these crimes go unreported to the police – and of those that are reported, many are never effectively prosecuted.

These attacks can be particularly brutal. The Canadian Women’s Foundation also notes that a woman is murdered by an intimate partner once every six days in Canada. Perhaps not surprisingly, although domestic violence affects all socio-economic groups — no one is immune to the dangers — individuals in certain groups are particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence. If the numbers for Canadian women as a whole are shocking, the figures for Aboriginal women are staggering.

Finally, the Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that domestic violence against men and women costs the Canadian economy $7.4 billion a year – and much of it is borne by individual taxpayers.

Domestic Violence and the Workplace

For decades, many employers were reluctant to address the challenging topic of domestic violence within workplace settings. Workers' concerns were brushed off and the victims were told that this is a matter for the police, lawyers, doctors, and NGOs – not employers.

In recent years, however, this attitude has begun to change. Employers increasingly understand the cost of the problem and recognize that domestic violence prevention and education is an essential part of their workplace safety programs.

We don't currently have specific figures about the number of employers who take domestic violence prevention into consideration as part of their overall safety strategy. But we do know that, according to the CDC, more than 60% of U.S. employers do not address this challenge, so it is likely that many Canadian companies are falling behind as well.

Addressing Domestic Violence

Acknowledging that domestic violence is a real safety issue is an important step. But what does that look like in practice?

A good first step is to draft and enforce a harassment and discrimination prevention policy that all employees must buy into. This policy must clearly state that any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated conduct, verbal comments, or actions and gestures that are hostile, unwanted, discriminatory, or affect the employee's dignity or integrity are unacceptable (learn more about Workplace Bullying: An Act of War Threatening the Health and Safety of Your Employees).

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to these policies. For some employers, the focus will be on a zero tolerance approach. This may even mean immediately terminating any employee who is convicted of a domestic violence-related crime. For others, the policy may focus more on education and counseling. This approach may include mandatory training sessions and workshops. The shape of the program will, ultimately, depend on the unique makeup of the workplace.

No matter what policy a company chooses to adopt, they must be clearly spelled out in employment agreements. Once the policy is drafted, it is essential that the information is widely disseminated to all employees. Everyone in the workplace must know that help is available and the details about where to go to access this help. In fact, it is essential to ensure that the necessary resources are available to employees who are victims of domestic violence – whether at work or at home.

Human Resources representatives should be available to counsel employees on a wide range of difficult topics but also be trained to recognize when to refer employees to external resources, from legal advisors who can help them secure a restraining order if needed, to doctors and therapists who can provide professional counseling. HR representatives should make sure that all employees know that free and confidential third-party assistance programs are available to them. It is imperative that any safety program protect the privacy of employees throughout the process, since domestic violence is a highly sensitive topic and its victims and witnesses may be uncomfortable sharing what they know.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As we move into the fall season, Canadian employers must step forward and openly acknowledge that domestic violence is not just a problem in the home but one that has real effects on the workplace. By establishing comprehensive domestic violence programs or anti-harassment policies and making it part of their overall safety efforts, every workplace can do its part to protect its employees from abuse.