HR 'in denial' about impact of domestic abuse on employees

Issue still seen as taboo – but it has a huge effect on workplace productivity and wellbeing

HR departments need to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to addressing domestic abuse affecting employees, delegates at the first conference on the topic have heard.

The Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA) forum was held to coincide with the release of new research from Ipsos Mori and the Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. This found that only one in 20 medium and large UK organisations has a specific policy or guidelines in place to cover employees suffering domestic abuse, despite high levels of awareness about the issue among HR professionals.

A large majority (74 per cent) of HR leaders surveyed said they believed organisations could empower victims by giving them guidance on how to deal with domestic abuse. However, only 6 per cent ‘strongly agreed’ that it was an issue that was on the agenda of HR policymakers, while 20 per cent ‘tended to agree’.

ONS data published earlier this year revealed that close to 2 million UK adults have experienced some sort of domestic abuse in the past year alone, illustrating the scale of the issue. And as delegates at the event heard, for every victim there is also a perpetrator.

“HR professionals are very good at saying the right thing, but the problem then comes when they consider their own organisation,” said Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, adding there appeared to be an element of denial. “Only a quarter [surveyed] said they thought it would affect their organisation, and it is only on the agenda of one out of 20.”

Page said the issue lagged far behind that of mental health when it came to both employees’ and employers’ willingness to raise the issue. “It is still a taboo issue – and also a gendered one,’ he said.

From the perspective of HR, the main barriers to providing more support were lack of awareness, lack of training, lack of clear policy or guidelines, a perception of general unwillingness among staff to disclose instances of domestic abuse to their employer and a lack of clarity about where to find external support. The most frequent action which employers took on the issue was support via an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Sixty per cent of HR professionals said they would not be confident discussing domestic abuse as they would be unsure what to say and do, said Page. “People need more guidance – 92 per cent said that would make a difference,” he added.

Despite the prevalence of domestic abuse, the research found there were only 0.5 disclosures of domestic abuse on average for each medium and large-sized business in the UK over the past 12 months.

A victim of domestic abuse who shared her story with delegates at the event said she was hesitant about coming forward to her manager with the problem as she believed she wouldn’t be supported and feared for her job. She was also unclear where else she could go for help. Putting information in a new starter pack on where such support could be found would be extremely beneficial, she said.

But it’s not all about policies and procedures, added Jenn Barnett, head of people experience at Grant Thornton UK. It’s about creating a culture where anyone can speak about anything that is affecting them,” she said. 

“Whether that’s regular check-ins, or simply asking people what is happening in their life outside work, it’s about being human.”

When it comes to EAPs, specifically spelling out domestic abuse as one of the issues that they can help with would be beneficial, she said - but information on where that EAP support can be found needs to be reinforced and repeated by HR. Organisations should also consider whether victims need a new work phone number or email address as protection, said Barnett.

The research highlighted a lack of awareness among HR professionals of the significant cost to their business of this kind of abuse.

“In those companies which believe domestic abuse has had an impact in their organisation in the past 12 months, 58 per cent say an employee’s productivity has declined, 56 per cent that it has caused absenteeism and 46 per cent that it had an impact on other colleagues’ productivity,” said Elizabeth Filkin, chair of the EIDA steering group.

“Given the cost of domestic abuse to business at a time when the UK’s productivity is falling, it is more important than ever that employers do more to tackle the issue, which is why the EIDA came into existence,” added Filkin.

The research comes as the government consults on the scope and content of a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in June.