Chapter 22: Relationship Violence in the Workplace

Balbir Gurm

Key Messages
  • The most common forms of Relationship Violence in the workplace are physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual and financial. RV can be inflicted by those in an organization or those visiting it. RV in the workplace can start with minor incidents and escalate to physical and sexual violence.
  • Many companies have implemented diversity and inclusion policies; however, even though there are guidelines against discrimination in many companies, barriers exist to address such discrimination.
  • A person at higher risk of committing violence in the workplace may have some of the following traits: a history of violence, engage in threatening or intimidating behaviour, have increased personal stress, exhibit negative personality characteristics, marked changes in mood or behaviour, be socially isolated, has an obsessive involvement with his or her job, and/or abuses drugs or alcohol.

Relationship violence is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone that has a bond or relationship with the offender. In the literature, we find words such as intimate partner violence (IPV), neglect, dating violence, family violence, battery, child neglect, child abuse, bullying, seniors or elder abuse, male violence, stalking, cyberbullying, strangulation, technology-facilitated coercive control, honour killing, female genital mutilation gang violence and workplace violence. In couples, violence can be perpetrated by women and men in opposite-sex relationships (Carney et al., 2007), within same-sex relationships (Rollè et al., 2018) and in relationships where the victim is LGBTQ2SAI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, intersex and asexual plus)  (The Scottish Trans Alliance, 2010; Rollè et al., 2018). Relationship violence is a result of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia and homophobia. It can span the entire age spectrum. It may start in-utero and end with death. In this chapter, we focus on the violence that occurs in the workplace between people that know each other.

RV in the workplace

Relationship violence in the workplace can occur anytime during a business or organization’s life/existence. RV in the workplace has been described as any type of abuse, threat, intimidation or assault that occurs in a place of employment (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS, 2020). The most common forms mentioned are physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual and financial. Work Safe BC (2000) divides relationship violence in the workplace as physical (workplace violence) and emotional (bullying and harassment). People spend a great deal of their lifetime at work so it is imperative that we create safety in the workplace. It is important that work environments foster respect, inclusion for the full diversity as outlined in the Human Rights Act (United Nations [UN], n.d.). Therefore, there should be no discrimination based on a person’s race, “national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered(Canadian Human Rights Act., R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6).

Discrimination creates an environment that privileges some employees more than others and sets up power dynamics that may lead to relationship violence. Some theorists believe that violence is a result of power and control or lack thereof (chapter 6) as well as hegemonic practices and policies that contribute to inequality. Since the terminology, ‘discrimination’ has received a more expanded definition in the efforts to embrace direct discrimination and its consequences, many companies have implemented diversity and inclusion policies. Such policies intend to support and address the exclusion of certain groups of individuals in the workplace (Sheppard, 2010). However, not all nations have proper laws to address discriminatory behaviours in the workplace, nor laws that are inclusive enough to include the range of diversity among people (Barak, 2016). Also, even though there are guidelines against discrimination in many companies, barriers exist to address discrimination (Sheppard, 2010). Discrimination and racism remain systemic. An example most recently is the death of George Floyd in the US. We are aware that some of you may find watching video of his murder disturbing so have not embedded it here but the video of the behaviour of the police officers leading up to his death can be accessed here video here (New York Times, 2020).

Many authors agree that the highest workplace violence is in the healthcare field (Arnetz al., 1996; Camerino et al., 2007; Campbell et al., 2015; Eker et al., 2012; Gerberich et al., 2004; Magnavita, 2013; Toscano & Weber, 1995). A systematic review found RV impacts 61.9% of employees, and most cases are connected with harassment, sexual harassment, and physical violence. Also, professionals working with unstable persons, the public, and those who provide health care or other care services (e.g., care aides, counselling) and education are at higher risk of relationship violence (Liu et al., 2019; Employment and Social Development Canada, 2017). RV can be inflicted by those employed in an organization or those visiting it. In healthcare, relationship violence offenders can be patients, family members or caregivers, visitors, co-workers, managers/administrators.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU, 2020) include bullying and lateral violence (i.e., violence experienced from a co-worker) in their definition of workplace violence:

[…] inappropriate, offensive, abusive, aggressive, negative, intimidating, or insulting work-related behaviour or abuse of power, which directly or indirectly undermines confidence, devalues ability, or lowers the self-esteem of a worker.  

Our team considers the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions’ definition of violence in the workplace relevant and appropriate to be included in NEVR’s definition of relationship violence in the workplace because it is between individuals that are known to each other.

Harassment data from 2016 indicate that 19% of women and 13% of men aged 15 to 64 reported that they experienced at least one type of harassment in the workplace in the past 12 months. Those in healthcare (which include nurses and doctors) had a 23% probability of reporting that they had been harassed in the workplace even after controlling for other factors. This likelihood was greater for women (27%) than for men (21%) (Statistics Canada, 2018). Besides the probability of reporting workplace harassment, half of all physicians in the US who work in emergency rooms have reported RV in the workplace (American College of Emergency Physicians, n.d.). Healthcare workers (snapshot of 2016) had more time lost due to workplace violence than police and corrections personnel (Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Union, n.d.). Also, The Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE, n.d.) works with industry partners to conduct studies on gender inequality and in one of their studies (How women are penalized at work for reporting sexual harassment) found that if women reported harassment themselves it was detrimental to their success in the company, while if others in the organization reported it, it did not impact the woman’s promotion opportunities. Further, in a 2017 Canadian study, 64% of women and 57% of men believed sexual harassment occurs at work (GATE, n.d.).

Chappel & Di Martino’s (2006) interactive workplace model identifies that individual and workplace characteristics interact and create risk for RV. This is consistent with the NEVR model (chapter 6) that states individuals and systems and social determinants constantly interact to cause relationship violence. The cost to the survivor is stress, illness, economic losses, repercussions on the family, constant demeaning treatment, dismissal/transfer and suicide ideation or attempts. In a large, 80,000 person cohort analysis, it was found that the risk of getting coronary artery disease is 1.59 times higher for those who have suffered bullying and 1.25 times higher for those who have suffered abuse compared to individuals who have not suffered RV (Xu et al., 2019). Workplace RV is not only detrimental to employees, but there are also repercussions for the organization such as increased absenteeism, negative publicity, difficulty retaining staff due to increased stress and a violent atmosphere, the latter also affecting recruiting new staff (Chappel & Di Martino 2006).

Warning Signs

Relationship violence in the workplace can start with minor incidents and escalate to physical and sexual violence. All employees need to pay attention to the following warning signs which may be present among their co-workers according to CCOHS (2020a):

  • A change in their behaviour patterns
  • Frequency and intensity of the behaviours are disruptive to the work environment
  • The person is exhibiting many of these behaviours, rather than just a few
    • Crying, sulking or temper tantrums
    • Excessive absenteeism or lateness
    • Pushing the limits of acceptable conduct or disregarding the health and safety of others
    • Disrespect for authority
    • Increased mistakes or errors, or unsatisfactory work quality
    • Refusal to acknowledge job performance problems
    • Faulty decision making
    • Testing the limits to see what they can get away with
    • Swearing or emotional language
    • Handles criticism poorly
    • Making inappropriate statements
    • Forgetfulness, confusion and/or distraction
    • Inability to focus
    • Blaming others for mistakes
    • Complaints of unfair personal treatment
    • Talking about the same problems repeatedly without resolving them
    • Insistence that he or she is always right
    • Misinterpretation of communications from supervisors or co-workers
    • Social isolation
    • Personal hygiene is poor or ignored
    • Sudden and/or unpredictable change in energy level
    • Complaints of unusual and/or non-specific illnesses
    • Holds grudges, especially against his or her supervisor
    • Verbalizes hope that something negative will happen to the person against whom he or she has the grudge
    • Non-verbal signs or body language
    • Flushed or pale face
    • Sweating
    • Pacing, restless, or repetitive movements
    • Signs of extreme fatigue (e.g., dark circles under the eyes)
    • Trembling or shaking
    • Clenched jaws or fists
    • Exaggerated or violent gestures
    • Change in voice
    • Loud talking or chanting
    • Shallow, rapid breathing
    • Scowling, sneering or use of abusive language
    • Glaring or avoiding eye contact
    • Violating your personal space (they get too close)

These are potential warning signs.  It does not mean that every single person who displays these signs is going to be violent. Some more hazardous signs you may notice with a co-worker or yourself are:

History of violence

      • Fascinated with incidents of workplace violence
      • Shows an extreme interest in, or obsession with, weapons
      • Demonstrated violence towards inanimate objects
      • Evidence of earlier violent behaviour

Threatening behaviour

      • States intention to hurt someone (can be verbal or written)
      • Holds grudges
      • Excessive behaviour (e.g., phone calls, gift-giving)
      • Escalating threats that appear well-planned
      • Preoccupation with violence

Intimidating behaviour

      • Argumentative or uncooperative
      • Displays unwarranted anger
      • Impulsive or easily frustrated
      • Challenges peers and authority figures

Increase in personal stress

      • An unreciprocated romantic obsession
      • Serious family or financial problems
      • Recent job loss or personal loss

Negative personality characteristics

      • Suspicious of others
      • Believes he or she is entitled to something
      • Cannot take criticism
      • Feels victimized
      • Shows a lack of concern for the safety or well-being of others
      • Blames others for his problems or mistakes
      • Low self-esteem

Marked changes in mood or behaviour

      • Extreme or bizarre behaviour
      • Irrational beliefs and ideas
      • Appears depressed or expresses hopelessness or heightened anxiety
      • Marked decline in work performance
      • Demonstrates a drastic change in belief systems

Socially isolated

      • History of negative interpersonal relationships
      • Few family or friends

Sees the company as a “family”

      • Has an obsessive involvement with his or her job

Abuses drugs or alcohol  (CCOHS, 2020b)

If you see any of the above signs in yourself or your co-worker, talk with your immediate supervisor if it is safe, call your human resources department or your employee assistance program. If your workplace does not have a workplace program to address RV, advocate for one. A program must include awareness, prevention, response, referrals to resources and communication about the program and processes between everyone in the organization.

Relationship Violence with Intimate or Dating Partners Flows into the Workplace

Relationship violence by partners may continue into the workplace and result in workdays lost, estimated at $77.9 million yearly (Canadian Labour Congress [CLC] & Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children [CREVAWC], 2014, p. 2). Workplaces try to address relationship violence that flows into the workplace as well as relationship violence that occurs by organizational members and visitors.

In 2014 the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (CREVAWC) at Western University joined with the Canadian Labour Congress and surveyed nearly 8,500 workers on the relationship between domestic violence and work. One-third of respondents stated that they were currently in an abusive relationship and of those 82% reported that the RV had a negative impact on their work performance, 40% noted that the RV negatively affected their ability to get to work, 10% reported that they had lost employment in the past due to RV related factors. Respondents also stated that they believed 46.2%, almost half of their colleagues were involved in relationship violence, 34% were survivors and 11.8% perpetrators (CLC & CREVAWC, 2014, p. 5).

RV does not just affect the worker being abused by their partner, that partner’s abuse may travel into the workplace, especially if the worker is employed in a public place. Other workers may witness abuse, maybe endanger themselves and/or become collateral damage.

Also, women who suffer relationship violence at home, suffer greater job instability. Also, they are harassed by their partners about going to work in order to keep the victim socially and financially dependent on the abuser, so that they will not have the independence to leave the relationship. Some of the tactics Chung et al. (2012, p. 19) quoted in their evidence review on workplace violence are:

  • Destroying personal documents
  • Preventing attendance at interviews and training
  • Verbal harassment and assault when women are leaving home to go to work
  • Offering to care for children and then not turning up
  • Interfering with women at work, such as ‘hanging around’ outside the workplace
  • Assault or threat of assault to women at work
  • Abusive and threatening text messages and emails
  • Damaging property or harming pets
  • Verbal abuse and assault if women arrive home late from work
  • ‘Stalking’ women to and from work and following them to new accommodation and employment


In 2018, the federal government passed changes to permit those fleeing RV to have up to 10 days leave, with five of those paid leave. This affects 900,000 private-sector workers employed in federally regulated industries such as banks, air and rail travel etc. (Cross, 2018). The BC government passed similar legislation, click here (Government of British Columbia, 2020) to read the government press release and to read the coverage by CBC of Harry Bains, Minister of Labour’s announcement, click here (CBC News, 2020).

The legislation that covers relationship violence in the workplace in BC  is below.

Canadian Human Rights Act., R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6

British Columbia Human Rights Code [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 210

British Columbia Laws Bill 14 – The Workers Compensation Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 492

The Occupational Health and Safety Policies for BC (WorkSafe BC, n.d.).

What can be done?

There are a number of guides and tools that can be downloaded and used by workplaces. As well, we have adapted 7 workplace initiatives that have been identified in the literature review by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (Chung, et al., 2012):

  • Organizational development strategies -build employee skills to implement prevention strategies
  • Community strengthening -address community risk factors from chapter 6 and question hegemonic practices that privilege one group over another
  • Communications and social marketing—create a media campaign that highlights practices to prevent violence in the workplace
  • Advocacy—become a community champion– learn to recognize abuse, intervene safely and help get the person to resources, legislative and workplace policy reform and research
  • Conduct social audits to understand the current situation of how well the human rights code and cultural safety is practiced and then set benchmarks for improvements in the practice of legislation and policy and research
  • Monitoring and evaluation—make incremental changes, monitor improvements and build on success

All forms of violence in the workplace involving two or more people that know each other are included in our definition of relationship violence (RV). Every worker has a right to a relationship violence-free workspace. A number of resources are listed below.



EVA BC as BC’s provincial organization on gender-based violence that is mainly funded by the provincial government has most recently created a policy document Gender-Based Violence, Harassment and Bullying: Workplace Policy Guidelines for Response and Prevention. This document is created for those in leadership positions to create appropriate, policies, training and responses in the workplace.

There is also a Comprehensive website that addresses harassment and workplace violence (WPV, n.d.).

Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide (CCOHS, 2020g)

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2009) has a guide to workplace prevention.  The website covers definitions, policies and what is required of employers to eliminate workplace violence.

Toward a Respectful Workplace: a handbook on preventing and addressing workplace bullying and harassment (WorkSafe BC, 2013). A number of other resources are available at WorkSafeBC.

Framework Guidelines for Addressing Workplace Violence (World Health Organization (2002).


Workplace Violence in the Canadian Federal Jurisdiction: Establish a Prevention Program (CCOHS, 2020c)
Bullying in the Workplace (CCOHS, 2020d)
Domestic Violence in the Workplace (CCOHS, 2020e)
Violence in the Workplace: Awareness FREE! (CCOHS, 2020f)


See Signs of Violence at Your Workplace? (CCOHS, 2019a)
Bullying is Not Part of the Job (CCOHS, 2019b)


American College of Emergency Physicians. (n.d.). Violence in the ER.

Arnetz, J. E., Arnetz, B. B., & Petterson, I. L. (1996). Violence in the nursing profession: Occupational and lifestyle risk factors in Swedish nurses. Work & Stress10(2), 119-127.

Barak, M. E. M. (2016). Managing diversity: Toward a globally inclusive workplace. Sage Publications.

British Columbia (1996). BC Human Rights Code. R.S.B.C c. 210.

British Columbia Workplace and Harassment Laws Bill 14 1996. The Worker’s Compensation Act, R.S.B.C c. 492.

Camerino, D., Estryn-Behar, M., Conway, P. M., van Der, B. I. J. M., & Hasselhorn, H. M. (2008). Work-related factors and violence among nursing staff in the European NEXT study: A longitudinal cohort study. International Journal of Nursing Studies45(1), 35-50.

Campbell, C. L., Burg, M. A., & Gammonley, D. (2015). Measures for incident reporting of patient violence and aggression towards healthcare providers: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 25(Part B), 314–322.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2019a). See signs of violence at your workplace.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2019b). Bullying is not part of the job.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020a). Violence in the workplace.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020b). Violence in the workplace: Warning signs.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020c). Programs.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020d). Bullying in the workplace.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020e). Domestic violence in the workplace.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020f). Violence in the workplace: awareness.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – CCOHS. (2020g). Violence in the workplace prevention guide.

Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. (2020). Defining workplace violence.

Canadian Human Rights, R. S. C., 1985, c. H-6.

Canadian Labour Congress. (2014). Can work be safe when home isn’t? Initial findings of a Pan-Canadian Survey on domestic violence and the workplace. resources/workplace_resources/DVWork_Survey_Report_2014_EN_0.pdf

Carney, M., Buttell, B. & Dutton, D. (2007). Women who perpetrate intimate partner violence: A review of the literature with recommendations for treatment. Aggression and Violent Behavior 12, 108 –115.

CBC News. (2020). New B.C. law to provide 5 days paid leave for workers facing sexual or domestic violence.

Chappell, D., & Di Martino, V. (2006). Violence at work. International Labour Organization.

Chung, D., Zufferey, C., & Powell, A. (2012). Preventing violence against women in the workplace (An evidence review: full report). Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, Australia.

Cross, P. (2018). Domestic violence goes to work, Canadian Women’s Foundation,

Eker, H. H., Özder, A., Tokaç, M., Topçu, İ., & Tabu, A. (2012). Aggression and violence towards health care providers, and effects thereof. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy4, 19-29.

Employment and Social Development Canada. (2017). Harassment and sexual violence in the workplace public consultation: What we heard.

Gerberich, S. G., Church, T. R., McGovern, P. M., Hansen, H. E., Nachreiner, N. M., Geisser, M. S., Ryan, A. D., Mongon, S. J., & Watt, G. D. (2004). An epidemiological study of the magnitude and consequences of work-related violence: The Minnesota Nurses’ Study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine61(6), 495-503.

Government of British Columbia. (2020). Paid leave for workers facing domestic or sexual violence.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (2009). Guide to violence prevention in the workplace.

Liu, J., Gan, Y., Jiang, H., Li, L., Dwyer, R., Lu, K., Yan, S.,  Sampson, O., Xu, H., Wang, C., Zhu, Y., Chang, Y.,  Yang, Y., Yang, T., Chen, Y., Song, F. &  Lu, Z. (2019) Prevalence of workplace violence against healthcare workers: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 76(12), 927-937.

New York Times (2020, June 1 ). How George Floyd was Killed in Police Custody [Video]. YouTube.

Magnavita, N. (2013). The exploding spark: Workplace violence in an infectious disease hospital—a longitudinal study. BioMed Research International.

Rollè, L., Giardina, G., Caldarera, A. M., Gerino, E., & Brustia, P. (2018). When intimate partner violence meets same-sex Couples: A review of same-sex intimate partner violence. Frontiers in Psychology9, 1506.

Sheppard, C. (2010). Inclusive equality: The relational dimensions of systemic discrimination in Canada. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Statistics Canada. (2018). Study: Harassment in Canadian workplaces, 2016.

The Institute for Gender and the Economy -GATE. (n.d.). About.

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Toscano, G. & Weber, W. (1995). Violence in the workplace.

United Nations. (n.d.). Human Rights.

Vidal-Martí, C.  & Testor, C.P. (2017). Is Chappell and Di Martino’s interactive model of workplace violence valid? An article analysing workplace violence towards healthcare professionals in Spain. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 35, 83-90.

Xu, T., Magnusson Hanson, L.L., Lange, T., Starkopf, L., Westerlund, H., Madsen, I.E.H., Rugulies, R., Pentti, J., Stenholm, S., Vahtera, J., Hansen, A.H., Virtanen, M., Kivimäki, M. & Rod, N.H. (2019) Workplace bullying and workplace violence as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: A multi-cohort study. European Heart Journal, 40(14), 1124–113.

World Health Organization. (2002). Framework guidelines for addressing workplace violence in the health sector.

Work Safe BC. (2000). The OHSR, section 4.27.

Work Safe BC. (2013). Toward a respectful workplace: a handbook on preventing and addressing workplace bullying and harassment.

WPV. (n.d.). Workplace violence.