What to do if you think someone you manage is experiencing abuse during the pandemic

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As a manager, you may be naturally worried about the emotional wellbeing of your team during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you suspect that a team member is experiencing family violence at the hands of a partner, family member, or roommate, these concerns would no doubt be heightened.

According to the Amercian National Domestic Violence Hotline, “When survivors are forced to stay in the home or in close proximity to their abuser more frequently, an abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as COVID-19.”

It is important to understand that, if someone is in an abusive situation, there may be many reasons they have not taken action to address it yet. It is important to respect the choices an employee makes about their personal life and how they approach the abuse. Do not approach the perpetrator about their behaviour. This could escalate the abuse and put your team member in further danger.

However, as a manager, there are steps you can take to help a team member if they are experiencing abuse and encourage a wider culture of support at your organization.

Creating a culture of support at work

Talk to your whole organization about family violence. Don’t specify any one group or department where you think an abusive relationship may be affecting an employee. Encourage members of your leadership team to raise the issue at every all-staff meeting and remind employees that there are hotlines for family violence available in almost every province and territory. You should also remind team members that they can always come forward for an honest, open, and confidential discussion with a human resources (HR) representative. Taking this wider approach will help anyone who may be experiencing abuse to come forward.

Ensure that you have a policy in place so everyone is clear on how you will address family violence. Your policy can include a simple statement from the Canadian Federal government’s definition of family violence as, “any form of abuse or neglect that a child or adult experiences from a family member or intimate partner (boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, fiancé(e). It is an abuse of power by one person to hurt and control someone who trusts and depends on them.” The policy should make it clear that your organization recognizes that family violence can happen to anyone, that it has a zero-tolerance stance on abuse, that the HR team are always available for a confidential discussion and can help direct anyone who needs help to the assistance program or helpful organizations.

Train your HR team, leadership team, and line managers on family violence at work. Training should include planning for events, such as an abuser coming to the workplace, and how to manage situations that violate an order of protection. Thinking through these scenarios in advance will help employees feel more supported by the workplace when separating from an abuser.

Responding immediately

If you believe a team member is dealing with a family violence situation before you have had a chance to do the above, there are important things to remember.

Recognize the problem. Look for sudden changes in their behaviour, quality of work, or unexplained reasons for poor performance despite a previously strong record. Other indications include unplanned absences of a day or two after which the team member returns with fading bruises, healing cuts, or unusual clothing or makeup that may be hiding these (even if remote working and able to observe via video chats). Episodic struggles with emotional control may also indicate abuse is happening.

Respond. Believe a team member if they disclose experiencing family violence. Do not ask for proof. Reassure them that you understand how this may affect their work performance and offer them support.

Let the team member guide your actions. Try to be as understanding as possible and let your team member decide what they are going to do, if anything. Be mindful of the reality a victim of abuse is at most risk of life-threatening harm while in the process of leaving the abuser. Trust the team member’s instincts and take safety concerns seriously. Arrange with them what to tell their colleagues if there is a pause in their work.

Plan for safety with the employee:

  • Does the employee need to come to the workplace for safe space away from the abuser? If so, can the employee’s work be arranged to be done in the workplace despite the distancing requirements for the pandemic?
  • How is shelter intake being handled at this time, if the employee were to need emergency shelter? If may be safer to obtain this information by calling a local shelter from the workplace or having someone do so on the employee’s behalf.
  • How can the employee request assistance or support from someone outside the home if the abuser is there to overhear phone calls? Develop a code phrase and/or text message the employee can use to signal that a call for emergency services is needed.

Keep a record of any incidents of abuse that you become aware of.

Getting support for a team member

The Canadian federal government has a list of phone numbers and organizations, divided by province, that can help those being abused, as well as children’s help lines if they are being impacted.

If there is immediate danger, advise your employee to dial 911 or contact the local police. This can be difficult to do in usual circumstances; however, it can be even more so during shelter-in-place restrictions due to the pandemic. Some emergency services have adopted a pizza-ordering code system for situations when a victim does not feel safe to explain what is happening and what is needed. Some crisis services do have text options to reduce the risk of the abuser overhearing the victim. Advise the employee to find out in advance what precautions are in place in your area. An advocate at a local family violence agency can advise them of current practices.

If you lose touch with the team member you believe may be experiencing abuse, take swift action to re-establish contact. If you leave a message for them, keep it as minimal as necessary. Operate on the assumption that the abuser will hear (or see) the message.


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