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Last week saw the publication of our ground-breaking guide for employers on domestic abuse. During the months of COVID-19, the media placed a powerful spotlight on this subject due to the increased numbers of cases during lockdown. In addition, over the summer, the Government held a consultation on support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse. That consultation could potentially lead to legislative changes down the line.

We take the view that domestic abuse is an emerging and growing issue for employers, especially as the boundaries between work and home have become so blurred due to so many more people home-working than ever before. In addition, many of the country’s largest employers, from banks to professional services firms, have developed strategies in this area and our guide shows the moral, commercial and legal reasons as to why that is a sound business move.

With all of this in mind, and to mark the publication of the guide, Maria Strauss answers a series of key questions on domestic abuse for HR professionals. 

The guide advocates that domestic abuse is a critical issue for employers. Why should HR make this a priority area?

Employers might be wary of the subject of domestic abuse believing this to be a private matter outside the workplace. However, domestic abuse is an employment issue because:

  • It can have a damaging impact on an employee’s wellbeing resulting in lost output and reduced productivity;

  • Domestic abuse can impact co-workers who may try to support their colleague by taking on more work, covering for their absences or taking messages from an abusive partner. Co-workers could even inadvertently put themselves at risk;

  • Domestic abuse is not always limited to the home. There are instances where it can enter the workplace such as repeated calls or visits from the abuser. This can particularly occur where the victim has left the relationship and the workplace becomes the only reliable means of contacting the victim;

  • HR should also consider the consequences of employing someone in the workforce who is abusive: are they using the employer’s resources to harass a victim? Do they pose a risk to the safety of others? Is the abuser being investigated by the police? Do they pose a reputational risk to the business due to their conduct?
  • The COVID-19 lockdown caused rates of domestic abuse to soar; victims were unable to access support in the same way, and so this will certainly have a knock-on impact on their work, hence this should be a priority area for HR;

  • In the guide, we advocate that small steps on the part of an employer could be life changing for victims of domestic abuse and lead them to the help and support they need. The guide also explains the commercial case for having a strategy and policy in this area.

In a nutshell, early help and intervention in these cases may save time, effort and cost on the part of HR and the employer.

Maria Strauss, Partner Farrer & Co

What signs should managers and HR look out for to tell if an employee is suffering from domestic abuse?

There are indicators of domestic abuse which managers, co-workers and HR may be able to spot. The list is non-exhaustive. However, there are the obvious signs such as unexplained injuries, noticeable changes in behaviour or appearance, an unusual amount of contact during the working day from a partner or ex-partner. There are also the less obvious signs such as isolation from colleagues, lateness, or frequently leaving work early, presenteeism and, more generally, poor performance possibly caused by anxiety, depression or poor sleep - all triggered by the abuse. The charity SafeLives have developed a useful Appendix listing some of the signs of domestic abuse as they may appear in the workplace.

It should be noted that some of these signs may be more difficult to spot whilst the colleague is working virtually, and if there are concerns about a colleague then, as we suggest in the guide, managers and HR should take advice and develop strategies so they can see the colleague in the physical workplace, if that is safe, and check in as to how things are.

How can HR offer support that is also discreet where necessary?

Employers can consider a range of ways of communicating available support to anyone experiencing domestic abuse. For example, the helplines of specialist domestic abuse charities can be publicised around the business, using, for example, posters, intranet campaigns or “town hall” meetings. This way an employee can make direct contact with a specialist for support. Employers could opt for a system of “nominated champions”, in other words trained staff members who can be points of contact to offer support.

Where an employer has a well-publicised policy on domestic abuse which is accessible to the workforce, employees will quickly see the types of support that can be offered by HR which could range from, for example:

  • linking an employee to a specialist organisation;

  • supporting an employee making contact with statutory authorities;

  • paid time off to attend appointments related to the abuse or to look for new school places;

  • short term measures such as advances on pay or loans where that is possible;

  • flexible working; and

  • counselling, as part of a longer term fix.

HR can also sign-post and offer support to staff members who may be perpetrators of domestic abuse. This does not mean condoning or ignoring their behaviour but assisting those employees who voluntarily seek to change their behaviour. There are specialist agencies that can help people in this situation which we reference in the guide.

HR professionals know that organisational culture is critical to most things in the smooth running of a business. As well as having a well-publicised policy and communications about domestic abuse, in order for a worker to feel comfortable making a disclosure about domestic abuse, which is likely to be one of their deepest, darkest secrets, the worker needs to have trust in the employer, and so having an organisation where there is a culture of trust is also an important part of the picture.

What advice would you offer to employees who are facing domestic abuse?

Employees who are enduring domestic abuse can show remarkable strength and resilience but they may normalise the abuse or blame themselves; they may not appreciate the actual level of risk they are living with. Employees may be worried that making a disclosure of domestic abuse could impact their job, career, promotion prospects or their reputation in the eyes of the employer. They should be assured that this will not be the case. Employees should be encouraged to seek and accept specialist support from the many excellent organisations that operate in this area, as well as discussing their specific needs with managers or HR. They should contact the free phone National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 080 8200 0247 for help and advice.

Anything else to add?

Employers should realise that relatively small steps on their part can be life changing for victims of domestic abuse and their children, and in some cases that we know of, can actually make a difference between life and death.

Opportunities to intervene and support a victim can come unexpectedly and knowing what to do at that moment is critical.

Maria Strauss, Partner Farrer & Co

The guide that we have produced provides HR with a foundation on which to make the case to the board as to why domestic abuse is a business and employment issue, and provides extensive guidance on embedding a strategy and policy in this area.

Accompanying the guide is a podcast of a conversation between Maria Strauss and Jan Pickles about domestic abuse. Listen to the podcast here.

The employer’s guide to domestic abuse can be found here.

If you are worried about your own or someone else’s immediate safety then contact the police on 999. If you need advice or you want to report a case that is not an emergency then call 101 or contact the free phone National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Maria Strauss, Amy Wren, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, September 2020

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