‘Landscape changing’ on protecting staff from domestic abuse

Out-Law News | 21 Jan 2021 | 11:57 am |

Zoe Betts tells HRNews employers are ‘waking up’ to the need to do more to support staff
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  • Transcript

    Are you doing enough to protect your staff from domestic abuse? Do managers know how to respond to concerns? Should managers probe and ask questions? This all stems from comments made last week by Business Minister Paul Scully. He released a statement saying employers have a duty to spot early signs of domestic abuse. He wants employers to carry out checks to ensure their organisation is spotting signs of domestic abuse and helping their staff find the right support. The Guardian covers this and flags how some companies are offering training for staff and support including paid leave and emergency accommodation. It quotes Nicole Jacobs, the domestic violence commissioner for England and Wales, who argues the UK should learn from New Zealand, where employers are required by law to provide 10 days of paid leave to survivors of domestic abuse. She says some employers have started to offer this on a voluntary basis.  She calls on the government to introduce legislation to place a duty on employers to offer paid leave. Personnel Today also covers this and points out that the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill is currently progressing through parliament. The Bill will bring into law a statutory definition of domestic abuse, as well as measures aimed at better protecting and supporting survivors and their children, although it doesn't contemplate the changes Nicole Jacobs is calling for. As you would expect, this is something we are currently helping clients to address. Zoe Betts is one of the lawyers in our Health and Safety team. I called Zoe to find out what more employers can be doing, given this is now high on the HR agenda: 

    Zoe Betts: “I think this is a really interesting topic and I think that the pandemic has changed a lot of people's domestic dynamic and I think for some it's changed for the better and I think, sadly, for, some people it has made the situation a lot worse. I think for some people, and I mean both men and women, going to work was a welcome respite from some of the pressures and problems that they may have faced at home and it gave them connections outside of their immediate family group. So clearly, as we've moved very, very rapidly towards much more home working, and I think that's going to be the case going forward. I think issues like domestic abuse should be on an employer's radar and yet I suspect that only a relatively small percentage of organisations actually have given much thought to this issue. I doubt many have a specific policy or any sort of guidelines on the subject and that's really where I think we need to see a bit more focus. I don't think this is about turning an employer into a counsellor, or even worse, into some sort of detective and who has to invade their employee's privacy, but at the same time I think where we've seen the development of policies and procedures and training in the mental health space, I think there could be similar moves with domestic abuse. So you could, for example, have HR personnel, or line managers, who are given training to spot the signs of somebody who may be suffering from abuse and then give guidance to those people as to how you would raise that with the employee in question, how you would have a non-judgmental and a supportive conversation in a discreet way which would make the employee feel safe about opening up about those problems. So I think it's more about reducing stigma, raising awareness, being able to signpost employees or colleagues to the right specialist services so they can get the support that they need and then that person can be managed in an appropriate and a sympathetic way. I don't think an employer could ever solve domestic abuse but I do think it is now incumbent upon employers to consider it as an issue when they are requesting or requiring their employees to work from home."

    Joe Glavina:”I'm sure there will be a lot of managers who would feel pretty uncomfortable addressing this issue on grounds that this really feels like a private matter. But from what you're saying the landscape is changing. Is that right?"

    Zoe Betts: “I think that is right and I think using the phrase the landscape is changing is the right way to put it. I think employers still have to be to be careful. This isn't, as I say, about rooting out somebody who is potentially suffering from domestic abuse or coercive behaviour at home. I think it's about giving people the ability to raise that themselves or to have somebody ask the right questions, just to explore that issue in the right way so that if the employee wants to raise something then they would feel comfortable in doing so knowing that they would then get the right support and a referral for help. So I think you're right that there has been some reluctance in the past, and people would perhaps see what goes on at home as being an entirely private matter, but I think where we've started to blur the lines between people's home life and their working life, and people are now working at home, and many of us including myself working at home five days a week, I think it does become an issue that an employer can't ignore. We don't want to be burying our heads in the sand. I think we are aware the statistics on domestic abuse make for quite shocking reading and there has been a marked increase during the pandemic in people reporting different types of domestic abuse and, as an employer, I think it would be it would be wrong to ignore that and not to be seen as a safe harbour for an employee if they were wanting to access some help.”

    Zoe and her colleagues in the Health & Safety team have produced a number of useful articles and guides for employers in the last few months with a focus on the impact Covid-19 is having on the workplace. You can find all of them on the Outlaw website.