Domestic violence in the workplace – not just the NHL’s problem

December 2015

Article by: J. Najeeb Hassan

Sadly, it is far too common that we hear of news headlines involving professional athletes charged or convicted of assaulting their partners or spouses, e.g. “Kings Defenseman Voynov Suspended Indefinitely”, and “TSN Analyst Aaron Ward Arrested.”

It should come as no surprise that professional sports teams are not the only employers that face the complex legal and practical challenges involved when consensual relationships between employees break down and spill into the workplace or where an employee is the perpetrator or victim of intimate partner violence (“IPV”).

Where the perpetrator and the victim are not both employed by the same employer, an employee’s violent or abusive behavior outside of work rarely meets the test for off-duty conduct, such that it can be dealt with through workplace discipline. Moreover, victims of domestic violence may not wish to disclose their situation to a supervisor, even though their work performance or attendance may be suffering. Supervisors may feel ill-equipped to deal with IPV presenting at work, feeling that such issues are better left to be dealt with by the police.

Setting aside the moral implications, the employer’s decision making is further complicated by the risk of a human rights complaint if an employee is disciplined for poor attendance or work performance that is caused by the employee’s abusive relationship and the employer knew or ought to have known this to be the case. Employers must pay attention to workplace rumours, unexplained bruises, and other indicators that an employee’s performance or attendance may be impacted by IPV. Depending on the circumstances, employers may have a duty to inquire whether an employee’s family situation is impacting their work and whether there are things that can be done to support that employee.

Another concern that employers must be alive to is whether an employee who is charged with or convicted of domestic violence is protected from discrimination in employment under the Human Rights Code. The main question to be asked is whether the charge is related to the perpetrator’s employment. In certain situations that link to employment will exist; for example, where the perpetrator and the victim are both employees of the same employer. However, employers must be cautious not to discipline or discharge an employee simply because they find the perpetrator’s behavior repugnant.

The potential for IPV to spill into the workplace is a real concern, so much so that the B.C. Occupational Health and Safety Regulations require employers to conduct risk assessments where there are interactions between employees and persons other than co-workers that might lead to threats or assaults in the workplace. Similar legal obligation also arise under the Workers Compensation Act and under the Regulations when violent situations may occur between two employees. Employers must also decide how best to protect their workers after conducting risk assessments.

WorkSafeBC has created tools to assist employers in conducting risk assessments and meeting their obligations under the Act and Regulations.

Employees must understand that their employer is tuned in to these issues, is supportive of victims of domestic violence and will not tolerate violence in the workplace of any kind, including IPV.

Some practical steps that employers can take include:

  1. Ensuring that the right messages come from Company thought leaders.
  2. Developing policies and procedures specifically tailored to protecting workers from domestic violence at work. Coat- tailing IPV onto a general bullying and harassment policy is not sufficient.
  3. Establishing supportive policies that address issues such as restraining orders, confidentiality and reporting protocols.
  4. Consider whether Employee and Family Assistance programs provide employees with access to experts in the field of IPV and provide access to those programs.