How businesses can support staff affected by domestic abuse

In light of the BEIS review, Katherine McInnes and Abbie Harley explain the positive role employers can play in raising awareness and taking action in this area

An estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020 in England and Wales. While both men and women suffer domestic abuse, women are considerably more likely to experience it. 

The national lockdown restrictions introduced in response to the Covid pandemic and increased home working have reduced potential escape routes from abusive situations, and the number of domestic abuse incidents has risen.  

Between June and November 2020, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched a review into the support available in the workplace for individuals suffering from domestic abuse. The response sets out its key findings, best practice for organisations and the positive role employers can play in supporting employees.  

BEIS commits to working with businesses to raise awareness of domestic abuse as a workplace issue, and ensure they have the tools to support their staff. While the response does not introduce a new legal duty on employers, the government promotes the Acas working from home during the coronavirus pandemic guidance on domestic abuse. Acas states: “Employers have a legal duty of care to their employees and should: look out for signs of domestic abuse; respond appropriately; support someone who is experiencing domestic abuse; and keep a record of incidents at work and when employees report domestic abuse, and any actions taken.”

Awareness, knowledge and support from employers is critical, not only in helping to provide a safe space for employees, but also in ensuring they can give their best when working (whether at home or in the office).   

There are several steps businesses can take to support staff affected by domestic abuse:

Awareness

A good starting point for employers is to educate themselves, so that they:

  • are aware of the ways in which domestic abuse can manifest itself; 
  • understand what specialist support is available for employees and what they should do if staff disclose that they are suffering from domestic abuse;
  • understand that economic abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of abuse; for example, preventing the victim from working or working successfully, and so limiting their independence; 
  • can appoint a domestic abuse champion or join a wider third-party knowledge sharing network; and
  • understand the legal framework for employers in relation to domestic abuse. 

Action

Once employers understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, they should then look at their organisational approach to supporting employees:

  • While understanding that not one size fits all, develop a domestic abuse policy and approach following the guidance available. 
  • Take steps to ensure employees feel they can seek support by creating a supportive atmosphere and embedding it into their culture and across the organisation through leadership and raising awareness.  
  • Be cognisant of the fact that employees experiencing domestic abuse may require support outside of work for financial, legal or childcare issues. This may include allowing time off during working hours for court appearances, counselling or seeking legal advice. 
  • Consider the parameters for the different roles and responsibilities within your organisation, including HR, line managers and colleagues, and think about guidance in each situation that arises.  
  • Arrange for staff training to cover matters such as how to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and how to support employees who make a disclosure.
  • Treat all disclosures as strictly confidential and, as far as possible, on a need-to-know basis.

Resources 

Employers are not expected to be experts in domestic abuse, but they should:

  • be aware of the services and organisations that do specialise in this area, particularly locally, and signpost employees to these; and
  • consider whether they are required to report any incidences or reports of domestic abuse carried out by their employees. 

Consider approach with alleged abusers

Criminal conduct outside the workplace can have an impact on an employee’s role, and there are certain circumstances where employers can take disciplinary action; for example, where the conduct impacts trust and confidence or the reputation of the employer. 

We recommend that, before adopting this approach, this issue is specifically addressed in a revised disciplinary policy and staff are made aware that misconduct outside the workplace will be taken seriously. This is a fact-specific area and we caution against a blanket approach.  

Katherine McInnes and Abbie Harley are employment lawyers with CMS