Counselling Employees Who Are Victims of Domestic Violence | EAPA-SA

Employers may feel that issues of domestic violence are best left in employees’ personal lives as they have no bearing in the workplace. However, they need to understand that the workplace is not immune to the effects of domestic abuse and that they have a duty of care toward employees who are victims, in which case how do they approach the sensitive issue of helping employees who are suffering from violence or abuse in their domestic environment?

What is domestic violence?

At its core, domestic violence is about one individual exercising power and control over another. It is defined as when one person is being harmed by another person physically and emotionally while they are in a domestic relationship. Domestic violence and abuse can take a number of forms and may be verbal, physical, emotional, sexual or financial.


“…domestic violence is about one individual exercising power and control over another.”

What are the signs of domestic violence in an employee?

Work productivity signs

Change in the person’s working patterns – frequent absences, lateness or needing to leave work early. 

Reduced quality and quantity of work – missing deadlines, a drop in usual performance standards. 

Change in the use of the phone/email – a large number of personal calls/texts, avoiding calls or a strong reaction to calls/texts/emails. 

Spending an increased amount of hours at work for no reason. 


Changes in behaviour or demeanour:

Conduct out of character with previous employment history. 

Changes in behaviour – becoming very quiet, anxious, frightened, tearful, aggressive, distracted or depressed.

Isolating themselves from colleagues. 

Obsession with timekeeping. 

Secretive regarding home life. 

Worried about leaving children at home with an abuser. 


Physical signs:

Visible bruising or single or repeated injury with unlikely explanations. 

Change in the pattern or amount of make-up used. 

Change in the manner of dress – clothes that do not suit the climate which may be used to hide injuries. 

Substance use or misuse. 

Fatigue or sleep disorders.


Other signs:

Partner or ex-partner stalking an employee in or around the workplace. 

Partner or ex-partner exerting an unusual amount of control or demands over work schedule. 

Flowers or gifts sent to an employee for no apparent reason. 

Isolation from family and friends.

Guidelines for managers

The workplace can play an important role in assisting employees struggling with the problem of domestic violence. For many victims the workplace offers a shelter from the abuse and it is often here, through the support of a manager, colleagues and support services such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that victims choose to take the first steps to safety. Here are five guidelines for managers when facing assisting an employee who may be the victim of domestic violence:

“The workplace can play an important role in assisting employees struggling with the problem of domestic violence.” 

  • Select the most appropriate person or people to intervene

Before approaching an employee due to concerns that they may be in a domestic violence situation, carefully consider who would be the best person or team of people to have this conversation and what should and should not be discussed.

  • If the employee tells you that they are in an abusive relationship:
    • Communicate your concerns for the safety of the employee and for the employee’s children if there are any.
    • Guide the employee toward the organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which can provide free and confidential assistance with counselling and safety planning.
    • If the employee chooses not to use the EAP (or if your organisation does not have an EAP) refer them to other available community resources.
  • Avoid providing personal support

To reduce risk in a potentially dangerous situation, colleagues, managers or HR professionals should avoid becoming personally involved or providing logistical support for the victim, such as offering their home as a shelter, taking responsibility for making safety checks at the employee’s home or making personal loans.

  • Do not act alone

Managers should not deal with such volatile problems alone and should seek confidential consultation with:

    • EAP staff about counselling and community resources
    • Security staff about workplace safety issues
    • HR professional regarding time off or taking leave, any performance issues etc.
  • Focus on what the workplace can do to help
    • Ask the employee if any changes could be made at work to make them feel safer, such as providing a photo of the abuser to company security or changing their work location.
    • Allow the affected employee the opportunity to make private telephone calls or attend appointments during work hours as the most opportune time for an abused employee to plan for a safe transition may be during work hours.
    • Respect the employee’s privacy and maintain your relationship as a supervisor, not as a counsellor.

“…organisations will not reach first base in keeping more domestic violence survivors in the workforce…”

Domestic violence prevention

There is a compelling case to be made for organisations taking proactive action on domestic violence. However, without a clear strategy, policy and procedures in place to address domestic violence, particularly as it affects the workplace, organisations will not reach first base in keeping more domestic violence survivors in the workforce, let alone playing a role in the reduction of domestic violence in South Africa. Domestic violence policies should highlight the employer’s acknowledgement that domestic violence happens and may impact the workplace, and that employers will do what they can to accommodate those experiencing it.

Women are most often the victims of this form of violence, yet domestic violence is complex and impacts all genders. Thus, women should not be alone in working to find solutions. Men also experience domestic violence and should be included in the conversation. Awareness can be raised in a variety of contexts from executive meetings, health and safety sessions, town halls, on the organisation’s intranet and on any other appropriate forums or platforms that are in use to put out important information. Efforts to raise awareness should not focus solely on what the organisation itself is doing. Referring employees to support groups and other referral pathways for support is vital.