Domestic violence: does the workplace have a role to play?

BAME domestic violence and abuse

By Anne-Laure Guiheneuf, Head of “Research & Business” studies and CSR Chair project manager at Audencia Business School

Each year an estimated 2 million adults aged 16 to 59 years (approximately 6 percent of the adult population) experience domestic abuse in the UK. Of these, approximately 1.3 million are female.

Currently, the number of people killed as a result of domestic violence in the UK is at its highest level in five years. In 2018, 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides – 32 more than in 2017. The vast majority of these murder victims are women. In England and Wales, between April 2014 and March 2017, around three-quarters of victims of domestic killings by a partner, ex-partner or family member were women, while suspects are predominantly male.

Faced with such a grim picture, do companies have a role to play in helping to alleviate this situation? Are there practical steps they can take? Should they intervene if suspicions of domestic abuse at home are raised? Some would say that this is inappropriate: an employee’s private life should be of no concern to their company, and in any case, the company does not have the ability, or even the right to try to address it. But the fact is that domestic abuse does impact businesses and the economy, and in numerous ways. The overall cost of domestic abuse in England and Wales is estimated to be £66bn for the year ending March 2017. Whilst direct costs (medical and legal care) are of course a substantial burden to the economy, in fact they only represent just over 20 percent of the estimated overall bill. Indirect costs are the biggest burden to the economy with loss of earnings and productivity for the company. Physical and mental illness, absenteeism and isolation can all be symptoms of domestic abuse and greatly affect the performance of companies. Overall workplace absence cost the UK economy £18bn in lost productivity in 2017 and is expected to increase to £21bn in 2020.

According to a study of 6,000 employees conducted in France in 2019, 20 percent of respondents stated that they had suffered, or were currently suffering from domestic violence, and that it had detrimental effects on their professional life. For some of these, the workplace becomes a refuge, a place which feels relatively protected, even if their abusive partner sometimes called them at work or turned up at the office uninvited.

So, what if the workplace could become a space where victims could potentially find answers to their troubles? Today, a few large companies in France such as Orange or PSA have HR policies to support their employees if they are victims of domestic violence. In a few others, the support to victims is part of professional equality agreements and training workshops sessions are provided. Sometimes, in extreme cases, transfers to a different office may be facilitated, or exceptional leave can be granted. Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives also play a role to help prevent domestic violence and to raise awareness among employees.

Sometimes, very simple measures have a huge impact. For instance, displaying domestic violence awareness flyers in break-rooms or the office space can be implemented whatever the size of the company. Colleagues and managers are also hugely important, even if they often feel ill-equipped to help. Thanks to their proximity, they can pick up risk situations and they may be the first to witnesses their colleague’s domestic difficulties. Physical injuries are the most obvious sign, but repeated absences, sudden irritability, unusual discretion can also be a warning that all is not well.

However, it cannot be stressed enough that, while companies can certainly play an important role in helping their own employees, they should never be thought of as an appropriate replacement for professional domestic violence organisations.

In France, the hashtag #aidetacollegue (#helpyourfemalecolleague) was launched in 2019 at the Salon des Comités d’Entreprises in Paris to raise awareness and empower employees. The movement calls on managers and employees to be vigilant and not to remain silent if they think that a colleague is a victim of domestic violence. They can help to spread the word by displaying the hashtag prominently on their computer screen, using it on social networks or talking about it during breaks. Of course, a balance has to be struck between being vigilant, and respecting colleagues’ privacy – this is a complex matter which must be treated with discretion and sensitivity. But it is important that all companies take positive steps towards raising awareness of domestic abuse and violence, and if it can, help to end it.

Anne-Laure GuiheneufAbout the author

Anne-Laure Guiheneuf is Head of “Research & Business” studies and CSR Chair project manager at Audencia Business School.

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