How firms can help workers enduring domestic abuse

Victims have to cope alone when managers lack relevant training

Managers are already uncertain about their ability to help workers who are suffering violence at home, but things get even worse when it comes to remote workers.

If it can be difficult to discern if a colleague is being abused at home when you see them all day, five days a week, how can you fulfil your duty of care when your only contact with them is by phone, email and occasional Skype meeting?

There is a growing acceptance of the role of employers in helping their employees who are subject to domestic violence, but the lack of training for managers in this area means that well-meaning organisational policies can be ineffective, according to Karin Sanders, a professor and head of the school of management at UNSW Business School.

“If you are the victim of domestic violence – and that can be male or female – the [colleague] who is closest to you has almost never received training to help you,” says Sanders.

This makes things difficult for managers and victims – particularly when the abused are working remotely: “Because then there is almost no supervisor to help or there is no way to pick it up … and maybe for those people it is even more difficult to handle it.”

Around one in four people work from home at least some of the time.

Managers’ uncertainty about their ability to help was revealed in Domestic Violence and HR: What's Happening on The Ground?, a survey commissioned by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) of 1125 human resources practitioners in public and private sector organisations.

Sanders, who was lead researcher on the project, is worried by the findings that only 18% of organisations train their managers to recognise the signs that someone is being abused and only 14% offer training in starting the conversation.

Training and tools can help supervisors become more aware of the problem, recognise the signs and encourage people to disclose what is happening to them, Sanders says.

'Sometimes people have a mask on, sometimes they prefer that no one knows'


A ‘tricky conversation’

Domestic violence support appears to be the ‘poor cousin’ in a suite of employee wellbeing initiatives. Around 40% of HR respondents say they are not confident they have the resources and training required to support victims.

They say they are significantly better prepared to deal with employees with mental health issues, victims of sexual harassment at work, or those who suffer from a chronic or debilitating medical condition.

Sanders notes that violence is not always physical and the outward signs are not always easy to pick up.

“Sometimes people have a mask on, sometimes they prefer that no one knows,” she says.

“It can be a tricky conversation, but we should all be trained much better in it. If there is a change in someone’s performance, for instance, line managers should be aware of what is going on.”

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is a social problem that cannot be quarantined from the workplace. If people live in fear, their performance at work is likely to be affected and they may need time off to get help, medical treatment, counselling, legal assistance or safe accommodation.

The perpetrators may find ways to harass them at work and deliberately sabotage their careers.

The widespread nature of the damage is revealed in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2012 National Personal Safety Survey, which shows one in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

And, on average, at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia, according to Australian Institute of Criminology data.

A role to play

Of the respondents to Sanders’ survey, 132 say they have some involvement with the White Ribbon organisation, which campaigns against violence to women and accredits workplaces for their policies and practices in the area.

Along with workplace training around the issue of intimate partner violence, White Ribbon recommends employers offer 10 days of domestic violence leave (that does not take away from other leave types, such as sick leave or holidays).

Almost one-third of respondents to Sanders’ survey offer such leave and a further 18% say they plan to introduce it in the “near future”.

The fact that a significant number say they are going to introduce domestic violence leave could indicate this is a new and booming area of policy growth, says Sanders. However, she cannot be certain that respondents mean what they say.

“We would like to do another survey in two years’ time and see if we really find differences,” she says.

Research by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows around 12% of private sector companies presently offer paid domestic violence leave and they include NAB, Telstra, Virgin Australia, PwC and some public sector organisations.

The GPT Group last year announced a policy of up to 10 days of additional paid leave, priority access to flexible working arrangements, and $5000 in after-tax support to help with legal advice and emergency accommodation.

Qantas introduced 10 days of domestic violence leave last year. Lesley Grant, chair of the Qantas Group Diversity & Inclusion Council, says domestic violence is a challenging topic to address and manage, but the airline is committed to building an awareness of it.

“Providing a supportive workplace and removing barriers to inclusion are important and we aim to inform, educate and support our employees and managers by sharing information through our internal communication channels, leadership programs and in events such as our annual Safety Week,” Grant says.

Two-thirds of the respondents in Sanders’ research have some sort of policies in place with the potential to support victims. They are focused on inclusion and diversity, flexible working arrangements, parental leave and bullying.

'The transition from policy to practice is something we still have to put a lot of work into. It is always the harder part’


Societal attitudes

Some positive news is that there may be increasing acceptance that employers have a role to play in helping combat domestic abuse.

In the survey, only five people asserted that if people were suffering violence at home, it was none of their business.

This is a change from the attitudes that prevailed six years ago when Peter Wilson, chairman and national president of AHRI, published an article with then sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, calling for employers to assist employees who suffered violence at home.

“Many hundreds of readers commented on the article, with around half asserting, some rancorously, that employers have no role in what is essentially a private matter between couples,” according to Wilson.

“Just six years later, it pleases me to see that view is no longer so widely shared,” he notes.

Lyn Goodear, CEO of AHRI, says awareness campaigns during the intervening years may have had an impact on societal attitudes.

'The transition from policy to practice is something we still have to put a lot of work into. It is always the harder part’ – LYN GOODEAR

“But the transition from policy to practice is something we still have to put a lot of work into. It is always the harder part,” says Goodear, who was project director of the survey.

She says because the respondents were mostly working in human resources, their responses may be more informed than those of line managers, CEOs or the public at large.

“But I think if we did do a broader public survey, I would hope we would see change there as well,” Goodear says.

To get help from Lifeline, phone 131114. Or visit online.

Karin Sanders’ academic co-researchers on the AHRI survey were the Australian National University’s Simon Restubog, Nick Wang and Claire Petelczy.


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