Blogs & Comment

Fighting abuse in the workplace first means learning to see it: Denise Brunsdon

Statistically, it’s already likely someone you work with is being victimized

Businesswoman sitting in cubicle in office

(Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty)

CBC isn’t the only office grappling with the problem of violence against women.

Violence against women in Canada—domestic, sexual and otherwise—is significant. On average, a woman in Canada is killed by her partner every six days. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.

And this violence is affecting our workplaces. 1 in 4 victims stalked by their previous partner reported that the perpetrator loitered outside their place of work. Chances are, if you work in an office, someone you work with is, or will be, a survivor of domestic or sexual violence. Similarly, someone you work with is or will be a perpetrator of that violence. It may be difficult to hear, but your employee is as likely to be the attacker as to be the victimized party. Men are the aggressors in the majority of cases, but violence can break stereotypical gender norms also.

Employers are unwise to react to Ghomeshigate with a purely legal response. A company’s legal liability pales in comparison to the real, assured, everyday negative impacts of employees experiencing or recovering from violence. A better approach—both for individuals and the organization as a whole—focuses on risk-management. It takes three forms, all of which provide tangible productivity and reputational gains (in addition to being the right thing to do).


First, there are government compliance issues to meet. In Ontario, for example, it’s the law that employers must take steps to assure workplace health and safety for those affected by violence. In 2010, Bill 168 expanded the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include issues of workplace violence and harassment, specifically calling out domestic violence. Employers must take every precaution reasonable to protect workers who might be facing violence, such as from a potentially violent spouse or stalker.

Second, facing issues of gender violence in your workplace is a good value for your company to hold. To wait until a colleague shows up with bruises and in tears is to wait for a non-existent ideal victim. In reality, the harassment may be dozens of emotionally manipulative text messages, threatening visits to the office parking lot, traumatizing flashbacks from the night before, or anxiety about “revenge porn” circulating to colleagues. As far as corporate commitments go, being aware of these nuances and educating your teams on recognizing them is the right thing to do.

Third, establishing support systems for employee survivors and offenders seeking help demonstrates leadership—professional managers care about their teams. Like drinking and driving, sexual and domestic violence aren’t private issues. Rape and spousal abuse are public health issues, and employers need to pitch in.

Reports are that CBC went into the now-infamous Sunday meeting prepared to offer Ghomeshi treatment and support. Whatever your gut reaction to the allegations and to Ghomeshi personally, that would have been the right approach from all three perspectives: compliance with the law, strong corporate values, and professional management. Ghomeshi’s is one of the rare cases that ended up both public and litigious.

I’d highly suggest management in every company, no matter how big or small, use the Jian Ghomeshi and CBC case not as a reason to lawyer up, but to wake up.

Sexual and domestic violence, in a word, sucks. So does talking about it. It seems invasive and it feels awkward. But for those of us who live with the specter of gender-based harassment every day (recently demonstrated by this viral street harassment video), we’d rather people talk about it than continue to ignore it.

Women carry around victim-blaming, slut-shaming, the need to watch our drinks at parties, misogynistic online trolls, law enforcement’s traditional view about “ideal” sexual assault victims, ignorance within the criminal justice system, and many other issues unique to women’s lived experiences. It’s tiring pretending that our workplaces are gender- and violence-neutral, because for women, little is ever neutral.

Luckily, there are experts to help. Canada has some world-class think tanks and research on gender violence, such as the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has just given them a grant to start up the first international network for global research on the impact of domestic violence at work. They can help any office with crucial workplace training and safety planning.

Ultimately, Ghomeshigate has uncovered a distasteful aspect about the realities of life for women in Canada that colleagues should not ignore. Good can come of this in the form of awareness and support. Jian Ghomeshi is not the enemy. Men are not the enemy. Silence is the enemy.

Denise Brunsdon is a social media and public relations consultant with GCI Canada. She is also a researcher for the Domestic Violence at Work International Network. She is a JD/MBA 2015 candidate and recipient of the 2014 Torkin Manes and Women’s Law Association of Ontario Trailblazer Award for leadership in business and the law. Supporters and anti-feminist trolls alike can reach her at @brunsdon.