How to support employees suffering from domestic abuse

Domestic abuse or violence includes, but is not limited to, controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour. This how to guide considers how employers can support employees suffering from domestic abuse and violence.

Abuse can be physical, emotional and/or psychological, as well as financial, and can take place in person or through digital means. The abuse/violence is usually between adults who are, or have been, in an intimate relationship, or between family members.

Domestic abuse/violence is usually a pattern of behaviour, although it can be a one-off event and research shows that those who are experiencing domestic abuse/violence are targeted at work. It is crucial, therefore, that you recognise that any member of their workforce could be subject to domestic abuse/violence, and in some cases, the victim may not realise that the behaviour displayed towards them is abuse.

External studies show that domestic abuse/violence mostly affects women and are perpetrated by men. However, it is essential that you keep in mind that men can also experience this form of abuse/violence so any efforts made to help should be directed at both genders. This is crucial also to avoid possible claims of discrimination.

Whilst domestic abuse remains a prevalent issue in modern society, it has seen a sharp rise due to the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reported a 700 per cent increase in use of the National Domestic Abuse Helpline between April and June 2020, during the first lockdown. Furthermore, figures from the TUC show that 75% of survivors are targeted whilst at work.

The difference between domestic abuse and domestic violence

Whilst both domestic abuse and domestic violence come under the same definition and can often be seen being used interchangeably, it should be known that there may be some slight differences between the two. Knowing this difference can help you to determine the type of help you can offer the affected employee.

‘Violence’ suggests that the abuse taking place is physical, something that is intended to cause actual harm or damage. This can be:

  • physical attacks

  • sexual violence.

‘Abuse’ can also be physical; however, it is a broader term that refers to non-violent behaviours. This can range from:

  • verbal abuse

  • control

  • sexual (non-penetrative) abuse

  • emotional abuse

  • intimidation

  • isolation

  • financial/economic abuse.

Using appropriate labelling

When it comes to how you should refer to staff going through domestic abuse/violence, it is easy to settle for the word ‘victim’. However, careful consideration should be had when determining what the employee in question would prefer to be referred to.

Domestic abuse/violence is a difficult experience and it can be further demeaning to be referred to as a victim as it suggests that the abuse/violence is something they will have to carry with them for the rest of their lives — it is a lasting label that carries with it some negative connotations. It can denote helplessness and finality.

Instead, you should try to adopt other labels like ‘affected employee’, ‘survivor’, or none at all where it is not necessary to label the individual.

Impact of domestic abuse/violence at work

Companies should be aware that the challenges faced by those affected by domestic abuse/violence can manifest themselves in problems such as chronic absenteeism or lower productivity. Colleagues can also be adversely affected by a team member going through domestic abuse/violence — either because they may find it difficult to also be productive if the affected team member’s work has dipped, or because of a change in the affected colleague’s demeanour.

Domestic abuse does not occur only within the home and an employee can experience this form of abuse:

  • through threatening visits, phone calls and emails from the perpetrator while they are at work

  • when travelling to and from work.

Raising awareness of domestic abuse

One of the best ways to prepare for this issue arising is to take steps to raise awareness of it. By ensuring that employees can spot the signs of a colleague facing domestic abuse, the organsiation can be in a strong position to respond to it. Their colleagues will also be in a better position to respond appropriately and sympathetically, either through simply listening to concerns, helping the employee access support or referring the issue to the right contacts in the organisation.

There are numerous methods you can explore to raise awareness of this issue. External trainers can be brought in to speak to employees, inform them of the issues surrounding domestic abuse and the best ways they can seek to combat it. Additionally, details on how to report suspected domestic abuse, and the steps the organisation will take in response to this, could be included within an induction process.

Any support that the organisation offers should be clear to all — as outlined on the government website, there is no point having this support in place if it is unclear, or staff are unaware it is available. It should therefore be front and centre, such as being clearly highlighted within an employee handbook or on company bulletin boards.

Consideration should also be given to individuals who enter a place of business and who might be impacted by domestic abuse, whether contracted staff or customers. Something as simple as displaying an informative poster, translated into different languages for maximum inclusivity, can make a difference.

Responding to impact on performance

If an employee is underperforming, it is important to make that employee aware of the concerns about performance; but first, such employees should be encouraged — and given as much opportunity as possible — to come forward about any issues that may be impacting on their performance.

You should make reasonable efforts to consider all aspects of the affected employee’s situation to support them through a challenging time. Managers should agree reasonable targets with the employee and provide any necessary support. If the poor performance continues and the employee does not appear to be able to improve their performance at work notwithstanding the support given, further discussions should be held with the employee.

It is very important to be as understanding as possible during this difficult time. Staff may not be working to their full capacity and as their employer you must take into account why this is. Therefore, although the use of formal procedures in responding to performance issues is not prohibited, this must be a last resort.

How management can offer support

If an employee confides in a manager that they are being subjected to domestic abuse/violence, that manager should be trained to treat all conversations as serious, and, importantly, confidential. However, the manager should not get involved in the situation themselves by, for example, confronting someone accused of being abusive. The manager’s role should primarily be to help the employee find expert help and to be supportive of the employee.

It is important not to overcomplicate a response to this. Simple steps such as referring staff to expert help could include reporting incidences to the police or seeking help from specialised organisations. The manager should encourage the employee to make contact personally with such organisations instead of trying to do so themselves.

Employees should also be reminded of their access to the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) (or similar) if such is on offer. If it is not already available, you should consider investing in it. It is a confidential telephone counselling service offered by a third party and paid for by the organisation; all staff will be able to talk to a trained counsellor about their circumstances.

Further support includes, but is not limited to:

  • regularly checking in with the affected employee

  • permitting the use of company equipment to search for online assistance or to speak to an expert who can help

  • ensuring websites of organisations who can offer assistance are accessible from work equipment — eg are not blocked under an internet usage policy

  • allowing the employee time off to visit one of the advice organisations, the police, a doctor, or to address legal, financial, or housing concerns

  • diverting phone calls if the perpetrator is attempting to call the employee at work

  • ensuring there is no public access to the workplace, where possible

  • agreeing code words or hand signals to be used during a telephone or video call to signal that the employee is in a threatening situation, and what action needs to be taken when one is used

  • a salary advance to a bank account other than that which is normally used.

What can managers do?

Managers should receive training on how to recognise the signs that an employee may be experiencing domestic abuse/violence, including silent signals that can be used during a video conference with employees working remotely, and also ways to support the employee.

Signs could include:

  • sudden changes in behaviour or quality of work

  • changes in the way an employee dresses eg excessive clothing on a hot day or changes in the amount of make-up worn.

If a manager suspects that an employee is being subjected to domestic abuse/violence, but has no evidence, then great care must be taken. The manager should give the employee an opportunity to confide but should not question the employee or put any undue pressure on them to discuss the situation.

Great care should be taken when the employee in question works at home because the perpetrator of the abuse may be monitoring communication or be within earshot of video or telephone calls.

If an employee is clearly distressed but will not confide in the manager then the manager should suggest that the employee contacts EAP, the HR department or some other suitable person.

It should be remembered that anyone can suffer from domestic abuse and may not feel comfortable disclosing this to either management or an EAP. It is always advisable to encourage a working environment where employees feel they can come forward about personal issues of this regard and talk openly about any concern that they have.

It is also important to be receptive to the varying needs of the individual. For many, the workplace can be the place where they can be away from their abuser and they may simply need some time, and space, to make calls and arrangements.

What if the affected employee and perpetrator both work for you?

In cases where both the victim and perpetrator of domestic abuse/violence work for the same company, you will need to take appropriate action, including:

  • considering utilising different work locations both within the building at which the employees work, or another work location, working hours, shift patterns etc

  • minimising the potential for the perpetrator to use their position or work resources to find out details about the whereabouts of the victim

  • offering impartial support and where possible ensure both the victim and perpetrator have different supervisors who are able to provide appropriate information to each party

  • using code-words or signals to communicate with the affected member of staff and associate those words/signals with an action – for example, a white sheet of paper taped to the corner of their computer screen could indicate that the employee has been receiving threats from the perpetrator and a manager needs to intervene and have the perpetrator removed from the building

  • depending on the severity of the case, you may need to contact the police if violent threats are being made.

Who should manage cases of domestic abuse/violence reports?

Where employees have come forward to reveal that they are experiencing domestic abuse/violence, it may be necessary to dedicate a team within HR to deal with this issue. This is because it will be easier to train a team on how to communicate with affected employees than to have managers do this on top of their usual workload — especially where there is a chance that the perpetrator may find out that the employee is trying to seek help.

By doing this, you can guarantee that the affected employee’s situation is dealt with properly and with the utmost care. This team should therefore be trained on how to respond to reports of domestic abuse and be aware of any code-words or signals that may be necessary for the safety of the affected employee.

Domestic abuse and working from home

With more employees working remotely as a result of the pandemic, survivors may be placed in situations where domestic abuse increases as they are required to stay at home for longer periods of time. As a result, you should also ensure that any initiatives that have been put in place to assist staff in this situation extend to those who are working from home.

There are also additional measures that can be implemented in this situation. One such option is the Canadian Women's Foundation 'Signal for Help' initiative. This encourages employees to make a sign whilst in a call, or on a video chat, that they are in need of help but are unable to clearly specify this at the current time. From this, you can be made aware of their current situation and take further action, such as discreetly asking for more information or even calling the police.

Being aware of external support

There is a range of external bodies available to offer support both to survivors and their employers. These include the following.

  • The Bright Sky App which provides a service directory for survivors.

  • Toolkits from Business in the Community and Public Health England.

  • Free to join initiative - Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse.

  • SafeLives, offer guidance for employers, line managers and HR professionals on responding to colleagues experiencing domestic abuse.

  • Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse.

  • The UK Government’s #YouAreNotAlone national awareness campaign and Covid-19 employer pack.

Domestic abuse protection notices and orders

Domestic violence protection notices (DVPN) and orders (DVPO) are preventative measures designed to keep survivors safe. The government website states the following.

"A DVPN is an emergency non-molestation and eviction notice which can be issued by the police, when attending to a domestic abuse incident, to a perpetrator. Because the DVPN is a police-issued notice, it is effective from the time of issue, thereby giving the victim the immediate support they require in such a situation.

"Within 48 hours of the DVPN being served on the perpetrator, an application by police to a magistrates’ court for a DVPO must be heard. A DVPO can prevent the perpetrator from returning to a residence and from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days. This allows the victim a degree of breathing space to consider their options with the help of a support agency. Both the DVPN and DVPO contain a condition prohibiting the perpetrator from molesting the victim."

In February 2021, it was reported that new amendments being made to the Domestic Abuse Bill as it moves through Parliament will now ensure that domestic abuse protection orders (DAPOs) apply to the workplace. This will mean that perpetrators will be breaking the law if they seek to gain access to a survivor at work and organisations will need to have procedures in place to respond to this. Up until this point, whether they did take any action was purely down to an organisation.

If the perpetrator is also an employee of the organisation, it may be necessary to suspend them in order to prevent them from coming into work and potentially into contact with the employee. How this would work in practice will, presumably, be confirmed in additional guidance from the government.

Whilst it is yet to be confirmed when this will come into place, organisations should prepare for the additional expectations that will be placed on them as a result of this.