When I first said that I would write a blog about domestic abuse at work, my aim was simple.

I want to provide valuable information for managers, business owners and HR professionals, on how to support employees who are victims of domestic abuse. I soon realised that in my goal to provide value, I also needed to provide guidance on how perpetrators of domestic abuse can be supported in the workplace, too.

So, what constitutes domestic abuse?

Women’s Aid is a national charity working across the UK to end domestic abuse against women and children. They define domestic abuse as an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour. This includes sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.

Domestic abuse is very common and is most often experienced by women and perpetrated by men. Some examples of domestic abuse includes:

  • Physical and/or sexual
  • Involve violence or threats
  • Controlling or coercive behaviour
  • Psychological or emotional
  • Economic or financial

Domestic abuse is a form of gender-based violence. According to CEDAW (1992), it is violence “directed against a woman because she is a women or that affects disproportionately.”

Women are more likely than men to experience multiple incidents of abuse, different types of domestic abuse, and in particular sexual violence. Any woman can experience domestic abuse regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, sexuality, class, or disability. However, some women who experience other forms of oppression and discrimination may face further barriers to disclosing abuse and finding help.

Domestic abuse exists as part of violence against women and girls. This also includes different forms of family violence such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so called “honour crimes” that are perpetrated primarily by family members, often with multiple perpetrators.

From an employment perspective, research estimates loss of earnings to almost £6,000 each year. On top of this, there is a loss of career progression, development opportunities, etc. to consider.

It’s not just women who are victims…

Despite this, men are increasingly at risk of being victims of domestic abuse. In fact, statistics published by The Mankind Initiative states that 1 in 3 victims of domestic abuse are men.

And furthermore, domestic abuse is particularly prevalent among other communities. For example, around 25% of LGBT people suffer domestic violence at the hands of their partner. Domestic abuse in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is a serious issue. There are many parallels between the experience of domestic abuse by LGBT people and heterosexual women. However, there are a number of aspects that are unique in the LGBT community, including ‘outing’.

So, here at Nectar HR, we recommend a more open approach to defining domestic abuse. As such, we would say that domestic abuse occurs between two people who are personally connected to each other, regardless of their sex, age or race.

It’s also vital to remember that domestic abuse can have a far-reaching impact beyond those two people. For example, domestic abuse could inadvertently impact children and other family members. In fact, we recently published a case study, which was written from the perspective of child whose parent was a victim.

And what about perpetrators?

It’s not surprising that perpetrators often get overlooked in the realm of domestic abuse support. Yet, often abusers have been victims of a form of abuse themselves, or their negative behaviours are exacerbated by a drug or alcohol addiction.

Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate domestic abuse. To do this, communities need to engage with perpetrators and create a safe environment for them to come forwards. To become aware of their abusive behaviour and acknowledge they need to change. Without community engagement, domestic abuse will not stop, and this is because:

  • Most perpetrators will not come into contact with the justice system.
  • Even if a perpetrator is convicted and/or imprisoned, they will soon be back in the community and even family.
  • Many perpetrators will continue to have access to their children, even if their relationship ends.
  • When one relationship ends, often another will start, creating new victims.

As a positive step forward, the Chancellor announced in the 2021 spring Budget that £25 million will be available to respond to perpetrators. Responses to perpetrators must be safe and effective and quality assured.

Why do organisations need to think about domestic abuse at work?

Domestic abuse is often a hidden crime, and as such, it needs to be dealt with seriously and sensitively. It also costs employers in the UK over £316 million in lost economic output each year.

Employers need to be able to identify signs of domestic abuse, ask questions, and create a supportive atmosphere. In turn, this will gives employees the confidence to be able to come forward and talk about domestic abuse.

Organisations should consider how they would support either a victim or a perpetrator of domestic abuse. It would be naïve for employers to think that domestic abuse only happens outside of the workplace. This is simply not true. In fact, in 2014 the TUC reported that domestic abuse frequently extends into the workplace. And their research found that between 36% and 75% of employed victims are harassed at work.

Domestic abuse also has a big impact on staff welfare and productivity. This has been particularly notable during the past 12 months, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the ONS reports that there are 2.3 million victims of domestic abuse. This means there are also 2.3 million perpetrators. And who knows how many collateral victims?

Financially, domestic abuse can be incredibly costly for organisations. This could be as a result of work-related absences. The inconvenience of frequent short-term absences can be very costly. But managing long-term absence is also very expensive, too. There’s also the consideration of a victim exiting the workplace quickly, with no notice period worked or handover provided. And the subsequent recruitment and onboarding costs of their replacement. The list goes on!

What can organisations do to tackle domestic abuse at work?

It is important to ensure that your organisation has procedures in place to react effectively to domestic abuse. This includes being able to deal with an employee who is a perpetrator.

Here are our suggestions for supporting both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse at work:

  • Have a specific domestic abuse policy in place. Download our free template!
  • Ensure your code of conduct (or employee handbook) references that all kinds of abuse, including domestic, will not be tolerated.
  • Make it clear in your disciplinary policy that allegations of domestic abuse may result in disciplinary action. And that you may also notify the police, if appropriate.
  • Reserve the right to report cases of domestic abuse to external regulatory bodies and/or professional associations.
  • Engage with employee representative groups and trade unions. Work with them to raise awareness of support available at work.
  • Ensure your sickness absence policy refers to support available to both victims and perpetrators.
  • Carry out regular workplace risk assessments and have guidance in place to reduce victims being targeted in the workplace.
  • Special leave policies – provide clarity on how employees can take time off to access external support, attend court, etc.

And most importantly, make sure that managers are trained to effectively deliver the policy.

Can organisations really take disciplinary action against perpetrators?

Yes, but it depends.

As mentioned above, it is important to ensure that your policies and code of conduct make it clear that domestic abuse will not be tolerated at work. It is key to ensure the organisation’s stance on domestic abuse is crystal clear.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, it builds trust and means that employees are more likely to come forward and seek support. And secondly, it gives the organisation the power to take into account matters outside of work. This is important because it stresses that disciplinary action may be taken against domestic abuse perpetrators. It also means that external bodies and the police can be notified where required. And it will enable you to get an injunction against an employee, preventing entry onto the organisation’s premises, if needed.

Not all cases will require disciplinary action, however. For example, if a perpetrator comes forward looking for support, the organisation may be able to help the employee – without being seen to condone domestic abuse.

An example of where an organisation may consider disciplinary action to be appropriate could be where company equipment is used to commit abuse. On a very basic level, organisations have an obligation to create a safe and respectful working environment. So, when an employee is using company equipment to commit abuse or is committing abuse in company time or on company property, the organisation is able to intervene.

Remember, there are various circumstances when an organisation can and does take disciplinary action against an employee for misconduct outside the workplace. If the employee’s actions bring the company into disrepute or fall under the category of criminal action – drugs, physical assault, racism, etc. – then disciplinary action is possible. Domestic abuse is no different, and should be dealt with in the same way.

Tackling domestic abuse at work: a three-step strategy

Approaching domestic abuse in the workplace can be complex. Breaking it down into a three-step process can make it easier for managers to deal with cases effectively.

We recommend the following three steps, which requires asking appropriate questions, to be able to address domestic abuse.

1. Recognise

What are the possible signs of domestic abuse?

The signs will vary, depending on whether an employee is a possible victim or perpetrator. If they are a potential victim, signs can include:

  • A change in behaviour, e.g., they may be quieter than usual, meetings are all of a sudden cancelled last minute.
  • Changes in their appearance – they may be less well-kempt than usual.
  • Changes to routine, so perhaps they usually bring lunch and haven’t recently.
  • A noticeable difference in the quality of their work, or overall work performance.
  • An unwillingness to take annual leave, or working late, or just that work patterns are concerning.

For possible perpetrators, a manager may notice:

  • Frequently making personal calls, texts or emails to a partner or family member.
  • Coming across as highly emotive, or even aggressive when discussing their partner or a family member.
  • Frequently requiring time off – possibly last minute – that seems to always be linked to a partner or family member.
  • A perception that the individual is secretive in their behaviour, perhaps often leaving the office to take calls.

2. Respond

How do I respond if an employee confides in me that they are a victim of domestic abuse?

Our reaction is incredibly important. It is vital that an employees is not put off, and that they don’t feel foolish or embarrassed to confide in a colleague.

It is important to consider the following:

  • First and foremost, listen.
  • Don’t jump to fill silences or talk for the sake of it.
  • Keep expressions neutral; take a non-judgmental approach.
  • Don’t ask for proof – this is not the place of a colleague or an employer.

Ask the following questions and be clear on the employee’s preferences:

  • Who are you happy for me to share this information with? For example, the HR team, the police, support services.
  • Is there an immediate risk? This could be to the employee or other employees in the workplace, to a child, or anyone else. If there is a risk, the police must be notified immediately.

Apart from anyone the employee is happy to be notified, their confidentiality must be kept.

If a perpetrator comes forward, it can be easy to jump straight to condemnation. Again, maintain a non-judgmental approach and consider if there any immediate risks to the individual, the wider workforce, or anyone else.

It’s vital to ensure confidentiality for a perpetrator as much as a victim, and to ensure there is clarity on the support they are seeking.

3. Support

How do I support this victim or perpetrator?

After a disclosure of domestic abuse, the priority is to ensure that the employee is appropriately supported.

Here are some questions that it may feel right to ask a victim:

  • What immediate support do you need?
  • Is work a risk area for you? If so, how can we keep you safe at work?
  • What changes can the workplace make? For example, can they work from a different location, change working times?
  • Would you like to set up a ‘safe word’ so that if you need to call us in an emergency, we know how to respond, i.e., call the police?
  • Will you need time off for external support?
  • What support services can we put you in touch with?
  • Do you want us to put you in touch with the police’s special units? Sometimes the police can put a ‘marker’ on an address or phone number, so if a domestic disturbance is reported, for example, they will provide a blue light response.
  • How often shall we get together for a check-in?

And for a perpetrator, consider asking the following:

  • How do you feel we can best support you?
  • What support services can we put you in touch with?
  • Are you aware that we will need to consider if your actions are in breach of company policies?
  • Have you received a criminal conviction due to this behaviour?
  • What interaction have you had with the police regarding this?

There are a few situations where you will need to exercise particular caution, for example if both the perpetrator and victim work for the same organisation. In this type of situation, we would recommend getting in touch with a specialist police department and taking their advice.

One size does not fit all

As an employer, organisations have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of all employees. This means that all organisations – as best practice – should have a strategy for dealing with domestic abuse at work. But one size will not fit all, and this will look different depending on the size and type or organisation.

And as ever, people themselves are unique and have individual needs. No case of domestic abuse is ever the same, so any approach an organisation has to tackling domestic abuse at work will always need to have an element of flexibility.

The key, ultimately, is to ensure the senior team and management teams are committed to the policy and are confident and competent to deal with domestic abuse, whether it’s from a victim or a perpetrator.

Get in touch today if you would like to discuss tackling domestic abuse in your organisation. In the meantime, please check our HR Consultancy Birmingham service.