Health and Safety: The Role of the Employer In Combatting Abuse

Content note: coarse language, frank discussion of violence – read me first

At 27, Kathryn Borel told her employer of ongoing sexual harassment from a coworker. The coworker was subjecting her to verbal harassment, as well as physical; he would rub his crotch against her, express a desire to “hate fuck” her, and engaged in psychological manipulation, often in front of coworkers. The report went uninvestigated, presumably because of the popularity of the coworker. Borel then brought the incident to the attention of a union representative who also did not begin an investigation. She ended up leaving her employer after being told she would have to learn to “cope” with her abuser (Borel, 2014). Seven years later, hoping to corroborate allegations made by others, someone approached Ms. Borel about her own experiences; because of the humiliation she had been subjected to previously, Ms. Borel agreed only under condition of anonymity (Donovan, 2014). Only after her abuser was criminally charged with numerous sexual and violent assaults was Ms. Borel able to feel safe identifying herself as one of his victims (Borel, 2014).

Abuse and the Workforce

Perpetrators of domestic violence, stalking, and harassment are overwhelmingly men, and men are victimized at a rate less than half of that of women (Occupational Health & Safety Council of Ontario) (Victims of Violence, 2011). While no one is immune to abuse, Indigenous women, individuals with disabilities, and LGBTTQ* identified people are more likely to report having experienced sexual harassment or domestic violence (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie). Abuse can take many forms, including violence or mistreatment of a physical, sexual, psychological, or financial nature. Perpetrators can be intimate partners, family members, dating partners, friends, or other members of a current, former, or transitioning/dissolving relationship of virtually any kind (Public Health Agency of Canada). A third of all Canadian workers have experienced domestic violence, and, of those who have, over half of them have had that violence continue into the workplace in the form of harassing phone calls, text messages, emails, the abuser showing up to or near work to continue harassment, and harassment via contact with employers and coworkers (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie). Despite the fact nearly one fifth of self-reported instances of violence occur in the workplace (Statistics Canada), a victim who is employed is in a better position to escape abuse (Canadian Women’s Foundation) (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie).

In January of 2000, a Vancouver Starbucks employee’s estranged husband came to her work armed with a knife. When he attacked her, the store manager intervened and was stabbed to death. WorkSafeBC, charged with enforcing occupational health and safety regulation in British Columbia, launched a domestic violence education program in 2012 (‘Starbucks’ hero motivates violence prevention toolkit).

The implications to business of mishandled reports

In 2005, Windsor, Ontario nurse Lori Dupont was stabbed to death at her place of work by an abusive ex-boyfriend. Ms. Dupont had filed complaints with her employer about the harassment her former lover – a coworker – was subjecting her to at work, but hospital management did nothing about it. Later, Ms. Dupont’s family sued Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital for failing to act to prevent Ms. Dupont’s murder, resulting in an undisclosed financial settlement (Tiller, 2012). In light of this and other incidents of domestic violence within the workplace, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act was amended to reflect the responsibilities of the employer, clearly indicating liability will be assessed if an employer fails in their duty to act (Occupational Health & Safety Council of Ontario).

82% of victims reported a decrease in productivity and 8.5% reported losing a job as a result of domestic violence (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie). As well, “53% of offenders felt their job performance was negatively impacted, 75% had a hard time concentrating on their work, and 19% reported causing or nearly causing workplace accidents due to their violent relationship” (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie).

From an accounting perspective, domestic violence is unsustainable: Canadian employers are losing nearly $78 million a year to domestic violence, “and the costs, to individuals, families and society, go far beyond that” (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie).

The Role of HR

Clear, well-publicized anti-harassment policies, workplace violence policies, employee assistance programs, and counter-violence training programs not only serve to protect employers from lawsuits, but also protect potential victims or aid in their healing. Since approximately 12% of Canadian workers have suspected a coworker of abusing someone at home (Wathen, MacGregor, & MacQuarrie), education and training offered through the workplace has the potential to increase the number of allies willing to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and, conceivably, their rehabilitation.

It is crucial for management, particularly Human Resource Managers and Specialists who might have occasion to hear disclosure of abuse, to have a firm understanding of the often-subtle ways in which we contribute to – or withhold – safety. Contrary to the prevalent mythology surrounding gender-based violence, such as victim behaviour influencing offenders, abusers abuse because it gets them what they want – control over a victim – while they suffer no consequence in return (The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime). From depictions offered by victims such as Ms. Borel, we get a sense of the destructive entitlement assumed by perpetrators, as well as his social standing; rarely does a perpetrator suffer any social fallout as a result of his continued victimization of others (The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime). Victims, on the other hand, may feel guilt or shame, confusion, self-doubt, and fear of not being believed, all of which may contribute to a decision to not report (Victims of Violence, 2011). In fact, women who disclose or report abuse are often less likely to be believed or more likely to be blamed than the male perpetrator (The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime). The integrity of the reporting process depends explicitly on the ability of management to keep their own biases and assumptions in check. Human Resource Managers and Specialists should be well-versed in best practices in handling the reporting of violence and harassment, and should never dismiss out-of-hand a report or other form of disclosure of abuse.


A non-traumatic reporting experience with regard to harassment, workplace violence, domestic violence – including possible implications for the work environment – and other threats to employee wellbeing, increases the likelihood of reporting. Greater rates of reporting can lessen the likelihood of violence in the workplace, increasing safety and peace of mind for everyone involved. Education and training builds alliances against violence and strengthens teams, which, in turn, promotes job satisfaction and increases productivity. Having the appropriate systems in place also decreases employer liability along with the associated financial fallout. Contributing to the safety and wellbeing of all employees, both on and off the job site, isn’t just morally, ethically, and legally responsible, it’s good business sense.


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