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Introduction

On 14 January, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy published their report into workplace support for victims of domestic abuse. This report is based on a consultation and review that took place between June and November 2020 and aims to identify the measures that could be put into place in the workplace by the Government and employers to support those experiencing domestic abuse. The below is a briefing on this review.

The report outlined the alarming statistics of the prevalence of domestic abuse[1] and the impact of domestic abuse on victims and children which can be significant[2].

There are economic and social costs of domestic abuse in the form of lost productivity and economic costs for individuals and their employers. Research shows that the potential loss of earnings per female victim of abuse is £5,800 per year and UK businesses lose £316 million in economic output each year as a result of work absences linked to domestic abuse.

Impact on victims and survivors

The impact of domestic abuse on victims and survivors can be significant and wide ranging.

The economic impact for a victim can include unemployment, diminished employment prospects and poverty, along with debt and poor credit ratings. Many responses to the review identified the ways in which perpetrators sabotage victims’ employment through actions such as:

  • hiding money or bank cards needed for travel,

  • ruining work clothes,

  • making a victim late, or

  • causing injury that leads to sickness absence.

Responses also described the detrimental impact the behaviours of their partner had on their ability to concentrate and perform at work.

One of the difficulties for employers in identifying domestic abuse is that the signs can be difficult to spot, and some controlling behaviours (such as an individual driving their partner to work every day) could be interpreted as being behaviours that are loving and caring. In addition, individuals may not realise that what they are experiencing is domestic abuse or may not feel able to speak about it.

Surveys have shown that between 36 per cent and 75 per cent of employed victims are harassed by abusive partners while at work, and that this can happen to anyone at any level within an organisation.

Issues for employers and the wider workplace

  • The review found that line managers and HR professionals can lack the confidence in knowing the correct course of action in relation to domestic abuse and may not respond accordingly.

  • It is essential that individuals in such roles feel supported and equipped to deal with domestic abuse, as they will often be the people who are dealing with either poor performance or absence as a result of the abuse.

  • The review found that there is a need for the parties involved to ensure confidentiality and consent throughout the process after a disclosure of domestic abuse.

  • Employers will also need to consider a safety plan and may need to consider taking steps to ensure that the perpetrator cannot identify the whereabouts of the victim.

  • Many responses to the review highlighted that especially careful management is needed where the perpetrator and the victim have worked in the same place.

Our Domestic Abuse Guide for Employers published September 2020 contains guidance on creation of personal safety plans amongst other topics identified in the Government’s review.

Impact of the Coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated domestic abuse. There has been an increase in demand for support services throughout the pandemic[3]. Responses to the review demonstrated that the pandemic has resulted in many victims feeling as though they have lost their ‘safe space’ through no longer being able to access the workplace. A consequence of this is that it is harder for colleagues or managers to spot signs of abuse (in our previous briefing on domestic abuse, see guidance on What signs should managers and HR look out for to tell if an employee is suffering from domestic abuse?).

Raising awareness

Raising awareness in relation to domestic abuse is now more important than ever.

The review heard about organisations who have implemented initiatives to raise awareness such as Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce who deliver a project where businesses of all sizes are encouraged to put staff forward who are then trained to spot potential signs of domestic abuse and signpost to services with their respective companies.  

The need for support amongst victims and survivors

The review found huge disparities across organisations when considering support that is accessible in the workplace. The responses to the review from both victims and employers emphasised the importance of organisations having a domestic abuse policy in place, as well as embedding support for victims of domestic abuse into wider organisational frameworks. It was acknowledged that this may be harder for smaller organisations, who may not have the resources or capacity to implement such initiatives.

A key commonality amongst the responses is that there is not a “one size fits all approach” in responding to victims nonetheless the report set out the characteristics of a supportive workplace, including:

  • Recognition of the problem;

  • Belief in the victim’s story;

  • Signposting to specialist services;

  • Offering a range of options to the individual;

  • A clear policy which sets out the support offered and the approach to dealing with disclosures.

The responses to the review also highlighted the dangers around timing in regard to domestic abuse, something which employers should be aware of. Abuse often takes place when a relationship has ended. This is highlighted by the statistics:

55 per cent of the women killed by their ex-partner or spouse in 2017 were killed within the first month of their separation and 87 per cent in the first year.

Barriers to support

The review identified some of the barriers that can prevent victims from being able to access workplace support including:

  • Limited support being available, or support that is provided is not easily accessible or up to date;
  • Individuals reluctant to disclose domestic abuse at work;

  • Lack of recognition of diversity amongst victims. Stereotypical representations of victims can make it harder for certain people to identify as a victim of domestic abuse;

  • Lack of appropriate signposting, especially to specialist services that support victims from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, migrants, LGBT people, disabled people and men;

  • Migration status may be a barrier to disclosing abuse. Victims may be employed by their abusers or work closely with them through a family business. Alternatively, victims may work in insecure jobs which may make it more difficult to ask their employer for help.

The report also flagged how people experience specific forms of abuse which are linked to their specific characteristics. For example, LGBT victims and survivors experience similar forms of domestic abuse to heterosexual/cis individuals but may also experience abuse which is closely associated with having their sexuality or gender identity used against them. The potential bias and discrimination they experience in different parts of their lives will influence a person’s perception of abuse and their decision to disclose abuse. Disabled people also experience disproportionally higher rates of domestic abuse, and the abuse is likely to be more severe, frequent and extend for longer periods of time than non-disabled people.

Best practice employers

The majority of responses to the review set out that having a workplace policy on domestic abuse is best practice and also gave suggestions regarding the development and implementation of a policy[4].

The responses to the review highlighted that in order to make an effective policy, it should be embedded in the company frameworks by ensuring that it is cross referenced in HR policies and linked to approaches to diversity and health and wellbeing. There should be effective signposting of the policy, along with putting posters and lists of local service providers around the workplace or on the extranet. The use of Domestic Abuse Champions can be helpful to raise the visibility of the issue as they can be trained to spot the signs of abuse, and effectively respond and refer to individuals. The role of senior management and leadership is also important as they can play a key role in raising the issue of domestic abuse and breaking down barriers regarding it.

Company examples of best practice

Vodafone

Has a safe leave policy with special leave which is specifically for victims of domestic abuse to attend appointments and seek help.

Lloyds Banking Group

Have worked in partnership with charities to adopt an “Acknowledge, Respond, Refer” approach of support, which includes training for all colleagues on how to spot the signs of domestic abuse. They have also launched a programme to provide emergency accommodation, food and one to one support for any colleague (and their children) who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Supporting employers

The review also flagged that employers may need extra support in developing their response to domestic abuse. This can be done though education and training for line managers and HR professionals, along with connecting with specialist domestic abuse and victim support services.

Protections against unfair dismissal and discrimination

The report outlines how union representatives support members experiencing domestic abuse during capability proceedings. Representatives of victims flagged that often the underlying reason for poor performance and absence is only disclosed when victims are faced with conduct or capability proceedings. This demonstrates the importance of early intervention ie line managers and HR being able to spot signs of abuse and respond. Another important aspect in ensuring that victims are protected comes from making them aware of the protections that they have from unfair dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

Access to leave and flexible working

Victims can face challenges in balancing work and dealing with the consequences of abuse. During time intensive phases, they might use their annual leave entitlement to engage with a range of services such as the police and social services, as well as moving home or finding refuge accommodation. Victims may need more ad hoc flexibility given to them by their employer to deal with this.

Employer’s duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and must take all steps reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and welfare. This duty of care may include protecting employees from wrongful acts of co-workers and third parties. In addition to this duty of care, there are also various economic, moral and ethical reasons why employers should respond to domestic abuse.

What the Government will do:

To build awareness and understanding of domestic abuse as a workplace issue

  • The Home office will continue to promote the #YouAreNotAlone campaign[5].

  • The Home Office will continue to promote awareness of the role of employers and their duty of care towards employees facing domestic abuse through the Domestic Abuse Bill Statutory guidance.

  • BEIS will promote the guidance provided by ACAS[6] on working from home during the pandemic which includes steps that employers can take to support employees who are experiencing domestic abuse.

To support employers in developing best practice

The government will establish a working group of Government, employers, representatives of domestic abuse victims and trade unions to convene and consider:

  • How to develop safe and inclusive workplaces;

  • How to support victims in a variety of situations, such as when domestic abuse impacts on safety in the workplace, leads to performance issues or where the victim works with the perpetrator;

  • How to best support employers, such as by developing specific model policies and education and training;

  • How to reach small employers nationally, regionally and locally.

To encourage flexibility in the workplace

The report emphasises that the Government recognises the importance of flexibility in supporting victims in the workplace. As a result of this they will:

  • Consult to take forward the Government’s manifesto commitment to “encourage flexible working and make it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”

  • Consult on the various steps which can be taken for victims of domestic abuse, for example, educating them on how to exercise existing rights more effectively.
  • [1] There are 2.3 million victims of domestic abuse a year aged 16 to 74 (two thirds of whom are women). More than 1 in 10 of all offences recorded by the police are domestic abuse related.

    [2] The review found that domestic abuse can lead to health problems such as mental health issues including depression, PTSD, anxiety and eating disorders.

    [3] During the initial stages of the pandemic (April to June 2020) Refuge recorded around a 65 per cent increase in demand to its Helpline, and a 700% increase in visits to its National Domestic Abuse website.

    [4] Examples include:

    • Working closely with trade unions and organisations specialised in supporting victims.

    • Policy to set out the signs of domestic abuse, roles and responsibilities, training and steps to ensure safety in the workplace and highlight what the employer can offer in terms of financial assistance, flexibility and paid leave.

    • Policy to outline practical support offers to employees, with measures including paying salaries into separate accounts, additional financial assistance, access to counselling or other health related services and access to time and space within work to make calls and other arrangements.

    • Ensuring safety for individuals around the workplace, such as informing security, providing safe parking spaces, accompanying individuals to buses or trains and making sure the information regarding the whereabouts of employees is not accessible.

    [5] This is a campaign which gives guidance to employers about how they can reassure employees that the COVID-19 household isolation instructions do not apply to them.

    [6] https://www.acas.org.uk/working-from-home/health-safety-and-wellbeing

Maria Strauss is a Partner in the Employment team and Safeguarding Unit and sat on the Employment Lawyers Association committee responding to the Government’s consultation and is the lead author of Farrer & Co’s Domestic Abuse Guide for Employers

With thanks to Siobhan Murray for support with this briefing.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Maria Strauss 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, February 2021

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