A guide to managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse
The Covid-19 pandemic, and a move to more agile working practices, has thrown the issue of domestic abuse into sharp focus. While the shift to working from home has been viewed positively for many, for very many others, it has removed the workplace as a safe haven.
Protecting vulnerable employees from the effects of domestic abuse is, and always will be, a workplace and a business issue – and it is vital that employers take action, both legally and morally, to address the alarming rise in reported incidences of domestic abuse. Given the recent spike in reported cases, we are proud to be working with our employer clients on this sensitive subject, and championing the excellent work of other specialist organisations, including the likes of Kyra and Employer’s Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA), which we are now members of, to raise awareness of this important issue and what can be done to support vulnerable employees now that the lines between our domestic and professional lives are more blurred than ever.
How can employers ensure support is there for employees experiencing domestic abuse?
We know from our work with employers and other HR professionals that domestic abuse is an issue which is starting to climb up the people agenda for organisations of all sizes. So, what measures can be put in place to help?
Awareness training for line managers: your line managers are the eyes and ears of the organisation. They need to be equipped to be able to spot the signs of domestic abuse (both the obvious and the more subtle signs) and the process steps that should be followed when they know or have a reasonable suspicion that an employee is being abused.
If they don’t feel confident having a difficult or sensitive conversation, they could turn a blind eye to signs of domestic abuse that are obvious which could result in potentially very serious consequences.
Introduce a domestic abuse policy and a toolkit of measures to help and support employees who are experiencing domestic abuse: this will show any employees who are experiencing domestic abuse that there is help and support out there and how to access it. The support measures could include counselling services, local support groups and specialist apps.
Appoint workplace champions: It is important that employers foster an open and inclusive culture where employees can talk freely and safely about even the most sensitive of issues. Creating additional avenues for employees to make confidential disclosures is really important as not everyone will feel confident confiding in their line manager. Champions should include representatives from the organisation’s senior leadership team and have their full endorsement and support.
Make funds available through a loan to any employee suffering abuse: one of the biggest hurdles to people fleeing abuse is the financial implications of leaving the abuser and setting up home elsewhere. Just having enough money of their own to pay a month’s rent and to find a deposit for a rental home is a major barrier to breaking the cycle of abuse. Many perpetrators of abuse exert control over the victim’s finances making it doubly difficult. Employers can help by making funds readily available, as an emergency loan, which can then be repaid at a level which is achievable and realistic.
What are the legal responsibilities of an employer?
It is vital that employers understand their obligations to their employees with regards to abuse. A number of employers’ legal duties will be engaged whenever they are on notice, or suspect, that an employee is the victim of domestic abuse. It is important that employers bear the following obligations in mind and put appropriate safeguarding measures in place.
Provide a safe environment: employers are legally required to provide a safe place of work for their employees, which includes performing risk assessments of their working environment. This has always been the case. As employers start to revisit those risk assessments in the context of a potential return to office-based work for all/part of the working week, it is important that the vulnerability of certain employees is taken into account in that assessment. For example, if an employer suspects that an employee is suffering from domestic abuse, they ought to be first on the list for being returned to the office environment.
Trust and confidence: disclosures made in confidence to line managers / HR about difficulties being experienced at home, need to be treated seriously and with the utmost confidence. It is essential that line managers are properly equipped and appropriately trained to be able to have conversations of a sensitive nature and know where to signpost employees for further help and support. A failure to handle a disclosure sensitively or in confidence could amount to a breach of the duty and result in a complaint for constructive dismissal.
Disability and reasonable adjustments: it is commonly the case that victims of domestic abuse go on to experience poor mental health or other health issues. Employers should be alive to this as a possibility and potential cause of the medical issues that have arisen. As well as being cognisant of the relevant legal duties under the Equality Act 2010 that are engaged when dealing with a situation concerning a potentially disabled employee, employers also need to be proactive in seeking to address the underlying cause and offering help and support.
The business case for employers to tackle domestic abuse head-on is overwhelming: domestic abuse and its effects are estimated to cost employers in the UK £1.6 billion annually. We also know that a staggering 2.4 million people were subject to domestic abuse in 2020 alone, the vast majority of whom will be in employment, somewhere. So, as employers, it’s time to start acting and doing what you can to effect change and provide support to the vulnerable employees in your organisations.