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Employers and domestic abuse

Charles Wynn-Evans and Alexis Westwood - Dechert LLP

Introduction
Domestic abuse is an issue that has become more prevalent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not least as those who experience domestic abuse are potentially having to spend more time with their abuser. It can be a work-related issue, not just because employers have a duty of care for the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. Individuals may be targeted at work by their abuser. Experiencing domestic violence can also have an impact on an individual’s attendance, performance and productivity, and the workplace can be one of the only places an individual can be away from their abuser. Recent guidance has addressed how employers can deal with this issue.

CIPD/EHRC Guidance
The CIPD, in partnership with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has produced a guide for employers (the Guide) on Managing and Supporting Employees Experiencing Domestic Abuse which, along with providing a variety of useful further resources on the subject, sets out key recommendations for employers in relation to the issue of domestic abuse.

The Guide suggests that four key steps in creating an effective framework in relation to domestic abuse support are to:

  • Recognise the problem – in many cases employees may try to hide domestic abuse. The Guide encourages employers to look for signs, which can include sudden changes in behaviour, changes in the quality of work or changes in the way an employee dresses.
  • Respond appropriately to disclosures – if an employee does disclose domestic abuse, employers should respond with empathy and compassion without making any assumptions about what the person is experiencing or what they need.
  • Provide support – support can include checking in frequently with employees, offering flexibility in working hours, offering paid leave and considering how to ensure an individual’s safety at work.
  • Refer to the appropriate help – employers should maintain a list of local support services which is easily accessible and to which they can refer employees. The Guide provides contact details for a range of supportive services, charities and organisations.

The Guide also highlights the different roles and responsibilities of HR, managers and employees. In particular, HR should take responsibility for developing a policy and procedures on domestic abuse, providing ad hoc advice on supporting those experiencing domestic abuse and introducing training, where possible, to raise awareness of issues relating to domestic abuse. Managers should be familiar with the organisation’s policies and procedures, be clear on the practical steps that can be taken to encourage disclosures of domestic abuse and should be able to ask open and empathetic questions and provide support in a sympathetic and non-judgemental manner. Employees can also support others by behaving in a supportive and empathetic manner. The Guide notes that some organisations have introduced specially trained domestic abuse allies/champions in their workplaces. Whilst this may not be feasible for small organisations, this might be a consideration for larger employers.

The Guide suggests that employers should also give some thought to their approach to the perpetrators of domestic abuse and should communicate a zero-tolerance policy in relation to domestic abuse. Domestic abuse, even outside of the workplace, can potentially amount to misconduct leading to disciplinary action, including dismissal. Of course, an employer would need to follow a fair process before taking any decision to dismiss.

BEIS consultation
In January 2021 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published its report (the “Report”) of the results of its review of how victims of domestic abuse can be supported in the workplace. The Report highlights the importance of raising awareness, being able to spot the signs of domestic abuse and knowing how to signpost specialist services, and identifies having a workplace policy as best practice. However, the Report also acknowledges that to be effective a policy should be embedded in wider organisational culture and practices. In particular, a policy could be supported by company frameworks, signposting of support services, domestic abuse champions and support from senior management and leadership.

Open letter from the Business Minister
On 14 January 2021 the Business Minister, Paul Scully, issued an open letter to all UK employers. The letter acknowledges the surge in calls for domestic abuse services since the first lockdown and encourages employers to ensure that every person in their workplace can feel comfortable to raise an issue of domestic abuse. The letter suggests various key steps that employers should take including raising awareness of domestic abuse, being inclusive, asking what support the employer can offer, making support clear and accessible to all and involving experts.

What steps should employers be taking?
Key steps for employers to consider include: Draft a domestic abuse policy. To ensure that this policy is effective it should be consistent and supported by other workplace policies (such as policies on equality and diversity, and homeworking).

  • Increase awareness of domestic abuse (including the organisation’s policy and procedures) and seek to create an open and supportive culture in which employees feel comfortable to raise issues.
  • Provide training to HR and managers on how to spot the signs of domestic abuse, support employees and implement any applicable policy.
  • Offer flexibility to enable employees to attend counselling, seek support from professional organisations and make necessary arrangements, for example concerning childcare.
  • Ensure details for support services are well signposted around the office.

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