The Dos and Don’ts of Approaching a Coworker who is Experiencing Family Violence
You’ve begun to notice something disturbing: one of your coworkers is behaving strangely. They’re constantly late, but their excuses are vague. They always seem to have one minor injury or another, and are uncomfortable when you ask what happened. They frequently receive personal phone calls—phone calls that appear to upset them. They’re preoccupied and startle easily. They seem anxious all the time, and they refuse to discuss it.
If you’ve seen any of these signs, it’s possible that your coworker is experiencing family violence. While the situation is delicate, there are steps you can and should take to reach out to them.
In recognition of Family Violence Prevention Month, we’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts when bringing up the issue with a coworker. We hope you’ll never have to use it, but since 25% of violent crimes reported in Canada are related to family violence, it’s important to have this information handy, just in case.
Asking the Question
Bringing up the issue can be awkward for both of you, and the way in which you ask can mean the difference between a positive response and a total refusal to speak. Approach the process with care.
- Don’t assume all victims are women: if you see suspicious signs consistent with family violence in a male coworker’s behaviour, remember that he may be dealing with family violence. Men make up roughly 50% of victims, but struggle to report (and are rarely believed when they do).
- Do maintain confidentiality: ask the question in private, so that your coworker doesn’t feel pressured or uncomfortable. Reassure them that, whatever happens, you’re a safe person to speak to.
- Don’t jump right in: first explain the signs you’ve been noticing, then express general concern. A good place to start is to ask them whether there is anything going on at home.
- Do be gentle: if your coworker is taking time to respond or has difficulty getting their words out, listen patiently. An open ear is one of the best ways to encourage a response.
- Don’t push the issue: if your coworker clams up, becomes hostile, or insists nothing is wrong, back off. You can’t coerce them into discussing what’s going on. All you can do is reiterate that you’re there to support them, and keep the offer open.
Handling the Response
So, your coworker has revealed that they’re experiencing family violence. Now what should (and shouldn’t) you do?
- Do emphasize trust: it isn’t easy to report abuse, so you must ensure they know that you are a trustworthy person. Breaking their trust could lead them to develop trust issues long afterward, so be very careful.
- Don’t judge: it’s natural to want to tell them that their relationship is unhealthy or to ask them why they would stay in that type of situation. You may even be tempted to mention that you, personally, would never tolerate abusive behaviour. Remember that one of the most harmful ways to handle their admission is to make your colleague feel judged, so keep your opinions out of the conversation and focus on how you can help them move forward without judgment or shame.
- Do thank them for telling you: acknowledge that it wasn’t an easy thing to do, and tell them you’re grateful they trusted you.
- Don’t ask for details: discussing the abuse may be painful for them, so don’t ask why it’s happening or how severe it is. Probing for specifics might cause them to become uncomfortable and abandon the conversation altogether.
- Do remind them that they’re not alone: it’s essential that you stress the fact that you believe them. If they know that at least one person is looking out for them, they may feel inspired to seek further help.
You’ve opened a dialogue with your coworker, they’ve admitted they’re being abused, and they’ve indicated they’d like to take further steps. Where should you go from here?
- Don’t tell them what to do: victims are experts on their own situations, so no matter how strongly you feel, remember that your role is to support them and make them aware of their options. The rest is up to them.
- Do encourage them to reach out to others: suggest that they talk to a supervisor or human resources professional, who may be able to alert security of any potential threats to their safety.
- Don’t initiate rescue missions: your coworker may have reasons for staying in an abusive relationship that don’t include love or loyalty. For example, they may be financially dependent on their abuser, or may have their children’s safety to think of as well.
- Do ask open-ended questions: your coworker may be able to list concrete ways to help them. Maybe you can screen calls from their abuser, document signs of abuse, or accompany them if they need to exit the building during the work day. They will know their needs best, so ask them for suggestions and respect their wishes.
- Don’t offer conditional support: make it clear that whatever they choose to do, you will always be there should they need any other assistance. Perhaps one day, if they decide to take action, they’ll be able to lean on you.