Soon after the UK government imposed its first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Sandhya Iyer, managing director of personnel consultancy The HR Dept, received an unusual request from a client.
It had an employee, nearing the end of her six-month probation, who was struggling to do her job to an acceptable standard while working at home. Iyer found this odd, as the person in question had been performing well until the lockdown. Rather than immediately starting a formal review, Iyer spoke to the employee, who revealed that her partner was subjecting her to domestic abuse.
He had been violent, smashing electrical appliances, and he’d even confiscated her laptop to prevent her from working.
Despite the government’s work-from-home edict, Iyer and her team made a special case for her to return to HQ. They activated an employee assistance programme, enabling her to access therapy services from the privacy of a meeting room.
With the company’s support, the employee was eventually able to leave her abuser and keep her job.
Domestic violence isn’t just a personal problem
Taking that experience into account – and the belief that even the smallest employers should have a policy in place to support victims of domestic abuse – The HR Dept partnered with Sharon Livermore, an ambassador for the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse. Livermore’s previous employer had made her take five days’ annual leave to attend the trial of her abusive former partner.
In March 2021, ‘Sharon’s policy’ was published as a guide for UK employers of all sizes. The first thing the document does, Iyer says, is to make employers aware that domestic violence has a significant impact at work too.
And, since the pandemic brought the mass convergence of home and work lives, more businesses are recognising the part they have to play in both recognising and tackling domestic violence. In the 12 months to March 2021, the number of domestic abuse incidents recorded by the police in England and Wales increased by 6% year on year, ending a long-term downward trend. The BBC branded the upsurge an “epidemic beneath the pandemic”.
Iyer explains: “This is about having a policy that encourages employees to come forward to their employers and say: ‘I have this problem. Could you please help me?’ We have to figure out how to support these people in a way that doesn’t treat their cases like a normal performance matter. It’s almost giving them the benefit of being treated as a protected characteristic.”
Support for victims as a growing voluntary corporate movement
Corporate policies on domestic abuse should be as common as workplace health and safety guidelines, especially given the rise of remote working. So says Catrin Lewis, head of global engagement and communications at Reward Gateway. Having worked at the employee engagement platform for a decade, she has expanded her role over the past two years to become the firm’s main point of contact under its support policy for victims of domestic abuse.
Created in May 2020, this comprehensive package includes paid leave for victims to seek legal advice and financial support to cover those expenses as well as the costs of securing new accommodation. Reward Gateway’s move is in line with a growing voluntary corporate movement in the UK, which has seen big firms such as Vodafone take the lead by offering paid leave to abuse victims.
Governments in other jurisdictions, meanwhile, have been legislating to ensure that such support is given. In the US, for instance, Missouri became the 35th state to oblige employers to provide a minimum period of unpaid leave to victims. The Australian government is offering paid support, with activist groups calling for statutory support from employers too. New Zealand mandated paid leave for victims of domestic abuse back in 2018.
“This goes hand in hand with being a responsible business and helping to support local services, which are under massive strain, as a lot of the budgets have been cut for charities that focus on this kind of thing,” Lewis says. “So what can your business do to give back and lend its support?”
She adds that employers can also make a difference by acting as a less intimidating alternative to the police. Lewis is speaking from experience, having worked for nearly three years as an enquiry officer with Thames Valley Police.
“Some people might not connect with a uniform or feel that they can trust it. But, if you have a good manager and employer, they can kind of hold your hand through the process,” she says.
Work may also be the only space in which a victim feels safe enough to speak up about their experiences, especially if they are being monitored by their abuser in other areas of their life.
Contemplating the worst-case scenario
Just because the UK’s Covid restrictions have eased, it won’t necessarily lead to a decline in the number of abuse cases, Lewis warns.
“It’s not something that tends to go away in a relationship once it’s been there. And, if the numbers stay up, there won’t be enough support, so people in this situation will be waiting a long time for help,” she predicts. “We wanted to remove any friction, help them get to the front of that queue and pay for legal support. It’s not a lot of money for us as a business, but it is something that would be hugely impactful for anyone who needs it.”
Lewis and her team are all too aware of the impact of domestic violence on the victims’ wellbeing and performance at work. They also have the worst-case scenario in mind.
“If one of your employees were to die as the result of domestic violence”, she says, “what impact would that have on your company?”