Shortly after the UK government imposed its first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Sandhya Iyer, chief executive of personnel consultancy The HR Dept, received an unusual request from a client.
There was one employee, nearing the end of her six-month probation, who was struggling to perform her job at an acceptable level while working from home. Iyer found this strange, as the person in question had performed well until the lockdown. Rather than immediately begin a formal review, Iyer spoke to the employee, who revealed that her partner was subjecting her to domestic abuse.
He had been violent, breaking electrical appliances, and he had even confiscated his laptop to prevent him from working.
Despite the government’s work-from-home edict, Iyer and her team made a special case for her to return to headquarters. They activated an employee assistance program, allowing her to access therapy services in the privacy of a boardroom.
With the company’s support, the employee was finally able to leave her abuser and keep her job.
Domestic violence is not just a personal problem
Taking this experience into account – and the belief that even the smallest employers should have a policy in place to support victims of domestic violence – the Human Resources Department has partnered with Employers Initiative Ambassador Sharon Livermore on domestic violence. Livermore’s former employer had him take five days of annual leave to attend the trial of his 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 make employers aware that domestic violence also has a significant impact in the workplace.
And, as the pandemic has brought about the massive convergence of family and work life, more and more companies are recognizing the role they have to play in acknowledging and addressing domestic violence. In the 12 months to March 2021, the number of police-recorded domestic violence incidents in England and Wales increased by 6% year-on-year, ending a long-term downward trend. The BBC called the upsurge an “epidemic under the pandemic”.
Iyer explains, “It’s about having a policy that encourages employees to come to their employer and say, ‘I have this problem. Could you please help me?’ We need to find a way to support these people in a way that doesn’t treat their cases as a matter of normal performance. This almost gives them the benefit of being treated as a protected feature.
Victim Support as a Growing Voluntary Corporate Movement
Company policies on domestic violence should be as common as occupational 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 within 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 for its policy of supporting victims of domestic violence. .
Created in May 2020, this comprehensive package includes paid leave to allow victims to seek legal advice and financial support to cover these expenses as well as the cost of finding new accommodation. Reward Gateway’s decision is part of a growing voluntary corporate movement in the UK, which has seen big companies such as Vodafone take the lead in offering paid leave to victims of abuse.
In the meantime, governments in other jurisdictions have legislated to ensure that such support is given. In the United States, for example, Missouri has become the 35th state to require employers to provide victims with a minimum period of unpaid leave. The Australian government offers paid support, with activist groups also demanding statutory support from employers. New Zealand imposed paid leave for victims of domestic violence in 2018.
“It goes hand in hand with being a responsible business and helping to support local services, which are under huge pressure as many budgets have been cut for charities that focus on this kind of work. things,” Lewis says. “So what can your company do to give back and support? »
She adds that employers can also make a difference by acting as a less intimidating alternative to the police. Lewis speaks from experience, having worked for nearly three years as an investigator with Thames Valley Police.
“Some people may not relate to a uniform or feel like they can trust it. But, if you have a good manager and a good employer, they can kind of hold your hand through it all. of the process,” she says.
Work may also be the only space in which a victim feels safe enough to talk about their experiences, especially if they are being watched by their abuser in other areas of their life.
Consider the worst case scenario
Just because Britain’s Covid restrictions in the UK have eased doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily lead to a drop in the number of abuse cases, warns Lewis.
“It’s not something that tends to go away in a relationship once it’s been there. And if the numbers stay high, there won’t be enough support, so people in that situation will be waiting a long time. for help,” she predicts. “We wanted to remove any friction, help them get to the front of the line, and pay for legal assistance. It’s not a lot of money for us as a business, but it’s something that would have a huge impact for anyone who needs it.
Lewis and his team are only too aware of the impact of domestic violence on victims’ well-being and job performance. They also have the worst-case scenario in mind.
“If one of your employees were to die as a result of domestic violence,” she says, “what impact would that have on your business?