Last reviewed 27 January 2021

Domestic abuse includes, but is not limited to, controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores this in more detail below.

Domestic abuse is usually a pattern of behaviour, although it can be a one-off event and research shows that those who are experiencing domestic abuse are targeted at work. It can be physical, emotional and/or psychological, as well as financial, and can take place in person or through digital means. The abuse is usually between adults who are, or have been, in an intimate relationship, or between family members. It is crucial, therefore, that all employers recognise that any member of their workforce could be subject to domestic abuse, and in some cases, the victim may not realise that the behaviour displayed towards them is abuse.

The purpose of a workplace policy is to set out that the company will treat domestic abuse with the utmost seriousness and explain how the company aims to provide a safe and supportive workplace environment to employees who are experiencing domestic abuse.

In January 2021, Business Minister Paul Scully wrote an open letter to organisations offering guidance on how they can support survivors. In his letter, he emphasised that he was not asking organisations to become specialists in handling domestic abuse, nor for colleagues to take on the role of healthcare workers or counsellors. That said, he did point out that colleagues and managers can often be the only people outside the home that survivors talk to each day and they are therefore uniquely placed to help spot signs of abuse. This article explores what steps companies can take in more detail.

Impact of domestic abuse

Companies should be aware that the challenges faced by domestic abuse victims 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 — 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 domestic 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

In his letter, Paul Scully advises that 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 organisation 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 employers 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.

Identifying performance issues related to domestic abuse

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.

Employers 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.

Although the use of formal procedures, eg disciplinary or capability, is not prohibited this should be a last resort.

Management support

If an employee confides in a manager that they are being subjected to domestic abuse, 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.

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.

There are other direct steps that management can also seek to take; as Paul Scully advises, this could include paying their salaries into a dedicated bank account so as to discourage this being accessed by a third party, or offering flexibility around working hours and patterns. The best way to find out what would help them most is to ask, and be receptive to their replies.

Employees should also be reminded of their access to the Employee Assistance Programme. If it is not already available, employers should consider investing in it. It is a confidential telephone counselling service offered by a third party and paid for by the company; 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, ie 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 concerns such legal, financial or housing

  • 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.

What managers can do

Managers should receive training on how to recognise the signs that an employee may be experiencing domestic abuse, 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, 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 Employee Assistance Programme, the HR department or some other suitable person.

Victim and perpetrator within the same company

In cases where both the victim and perpetrator of domestic abuse work for the same company, employers 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; changing 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, ensuring both the victim and perpetrator have different supervisors who are able to provide appropriate information to each party

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

Takeaway

Domestic abuse is a serious issue that can be detrimental to both affected employees and their employers. Therefore, it is more important than ever, given the coronavirus pandemic and with a lot of staff working from home, to implement policies on domestic abuse. Employers can use the above points as a useful guide to create an effective policy.