Zero tolerance and the concentration of blame

Three years ago Ray Rice was suspended from the NFL after video footage of his domestic assault became public. Slava Voynov was suspended from play in NHL after he was arrested on domestic violence charges and Jian Ghomeshi was fired from CBC after information about his violent behaviour in personal relationships became public knowledge. All of these incidents happened within weeks of each other. Each case brought a startling glare of public scrutiny and criticism for how the organizations initially responded to the allegations.

In response, the NFL revised its personal conduct policy in 2014 to include a six-week game suspension as a baseline penalty for domestic violence offences. Dallas Cowboys running back, Ezekial Elliott a high profile player received the penalty this past August, following a lengthy investigation by the NFL. He appealed the decision and in early September a judge blocked his suspension. The NFL Players Association has repeatedly challenged the league, seeking to reduce the power of the NFL commissioner to discipline players. The unfolding situation promises to be a long and costly legal battle.

The dilemma faced by leaders trying to set ethical responses to domestic violence in their policies and to protect their organization’s public reputation in a social climate that is still inclined to excuse abusive behaviour, especially by sports celebrities is clear. The NFL is caught in the he-said-she-said battleground that is unlikely to create opportunities for Elliott to reflect on, take responsibility for, and potentially change his behaviour. Isn’t that the outcome that we actually want? All of the fight is geared now to denouncing his girlfriend’s credibility. Everyone loses in this scenario.

New research released in Ontario in October shows that once a person is tagged as a risk for perpetrating domestic violence, their employment status becomes precarious. Ray Rice has not played football since he was suspended. His charges were dropped in May 2015 after he completed pre-trial conditions.[1]

What employer wants to deal with the messiness of someone who has been violent in their relationships? Better to avoid it all together with a zero tolerance policy. In this way, being labelled a domestic violence offender can be a life sentence, even when formal charges are dropped.

Pointing the finger

The study finds that approximately one quarter of the men reported that they lost their job as a result of the domestic violence charge either directly or indirectly. This outcome is easy to understand - the employer finds out that a man has been involved with police as a result of domestic violence and his employment is terminated. A number of men in the study reported that if they were working contract to contract, when the community found out, they weren't able to get any other work. Also, men talked about losing their job because they were missing too many days of work, they were too distracted or their productivity was too low as a result of the domestic violence.

In a CBC interview, Dr. Katreena Scott (OISE), the primary investigator on the study, contends that; “we need a variety of different responses to domestic violence so that we can intervene early and give employers a range of tools they can use.” [2]

To be effective in ending violence, we need to look at system level solutions that acknowledge there are overlapping conditions and influences that make violence in relationships more and less likely. It requires a willingness to move beyond a simplistic analysis that reduces the complexity of violence into piles of ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people.

Zero tolerance polices do nothing to contribute to the possibility of individual and social change. Automatic firing means he becomes someone else’s problem – most likely the woman he is harming.  Worse, firing him without making an attempt to intervene or provide opportunities to change the behaviour contributes to increased social isolation for men who are already a fair way down a violent path. Social isolation increases the risk to further offend. In this way, zero tolerance is a little like throwing oil on the fire.

This is an emerging but important area of corporate social responsibility for employers. It is also an opportunity to help employees correct their life course. The potential benefits are not limited to the individuals engaging in abusive behaviour, but also extend to the organization that is able to keep valuable employees in the workplace. In reality, with support and an increased sense of accountability, most men are able to change their behaviour.

Man getting counselling

These ideals translate into life. At one large company, a male supervisor was stalking his ex-girlfriend (also an employee in the same company) and threatening and harassing her male co-workers. He was surveilling her using his company’s equipment and time. He had oversight of several of the co-workers he suspected his ex might be dating. It was an escalating situation. When the union rep became aware, management was approached and informed. Together, they consulted experts who encouraged the company to use a progressive discipline approach. With coaching, the supervisor’s boss called him in to discuss what was happening. In the conversation, the abusive behaviour was named and the supervisor informed that his abusive behaviour had to stop. He was also directed to get help in order to keep his job. The behaviour stopped with the first conversation. The supervisor got counselling with a local partner assault response program (PAR).[3] One of the managers said later, “We would have hated to lose him, he was and is a good employee.”

If we are going to reduce the risk and incidents of domestic violence as a society, workplaces have a unique role to play. Progressive leaders can set the example by looking for solutions that create the space for offenders to reflect on, be held accountable and change their behaviour. Being unemployed is a high risk factor in situations of domestic violence. Remaining employed is a strong motivation that can save lives.


[1] See: Ray Rice

[3] PAR programs are funded by the Ontario government as part of the provincial response to domestic violence in Ontario. See: PAR *Note that there are private companies using the same name in Toronto.