Years ago I wrote a toolkit for managers. One page guidance on a whole range of topics that might come up in the day to day, from how to do a return to work interview to what to do when someone raised a grievance. One of those simple ‘how to’ guides was about domestic violence. I wasn’t an expert. I had simply lifted some good practice advice and signposted some sources of help and support. A few months later I went to the ladies toilet in one of our offices. On the wall was the domestic violence one page guidance. I talked about it with one of my HR colleagues. We hadn’t asked anyone to put it up. HR hadn’t done it. My assumption was that a concerned colleague had been responsible. Maybe they thought this was a private space where someone could note down a number. Maybe someone was trying to send a signal. I really don’t know. But I know that no one ever took it down. It was there for years. I have no idea if it ever reached the intended recipient, but I have never forgotten it.
Today I’ve been on a training course about supporting staff experiencing domestic abuse. I want to share a little of what I learned during a day that both challenged, angered and saddened me.
What is domestic abuse? All too often a silent epidemic. According to the WHO, 1 in 3 women will experience physical abuse in their lifetimes, worldwide. In the UK, 1 in 5 children have been exposed to some sort of domestic abuse. Those children will carry that trauma into their adulthood. 1 in 5 teenagers have been abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men experience domestic abuse. It is not just men who perpetrate and women who endure. It’s not just about spouses and partners. It happens between siblings, parents and children. Elder abuse is an issue too. 2 women a week are killed by a partner or former partner.
Domestic abuse includes power and control, coercion, stalking, financial, emotional and physical abuse, sexual abuse. It includes honour based violence and female genital mutilation. It often has an escalatory element. When you see a poster of someone with a black eye, that is an anomaly. It isn’t always physical, and when it is, it is more often on a part of the body that can’t be seen.
Although not typical in all relationships, there is often a cycle of abuse. At the start of the relationship things are great. But there might be a strong, quick involvement. Early ‘I love yous’. Significant amounts of attention. Then comes the tension building stage. Arguments, emotional and psychological abuse, criticism, name-calling, intimidation, minor physical abuse. All this starts to create fear. There are ‘I’m sorrys’. The final stage is the acute battering stage. Verbal, physical or sexual violence, leaving the individual wounded either physically or psychologically. The cycle continues, but the frequency speeds up. Domestic abuse can be systematic, deliberate.
Societal views are a problem. Why doesn’t she just leave? It wouldn’t happen in this family. Boys will be boys. She’s too smart to let this happen. It’s a substance abuse issue. It’s a women’s issue. She was asking for it. We call it domestic abuse, but it isn’t just about what happens at home, it happens everywhere. These are the narratives and perceptions that we need to change.
So why don’t people leave? A question so often asked. Full of judgement. But the answers are complex. Shame, fear, confidence, money, children, having nowhere to go. It is of course, also dangerous. The most dangerous time where physical violence is concerned.
Why is important to include workplaces when tackling domestic abuse? 75% of people who are abused are targeted at work. They are in a known place. This targeting might include excessive phone calls or texts in the workplace. It might include unwanted visits. It’s about increased absence and presenteeism. It’s about the resulting depression and stress. It impacts colleagues and performance too. Domestic abuse costs the UK economy 1.9billion a year. So this is very much a workplace issue.
What do employers need to do?
First of all, you need to give people permission to talk about this stuff, because some people just don’t want to go there. Why don’t people tell their employer? Lots of reasons. They don’t know who to tell. They don’t see it as a workplace issue. They are scared of being judged. They are worried about what people will think. So first of all, we need to create the knowledge that this is a conversation you can have at your workplace.
When people do leave an abusive relationship, there are many implications. Just on a practical level, you often leave everything behind. Money can be an immediate problem. Safety too. A good employer and manager can help someone navigate through this time period. You can take practical steps. If you have an EAP, use it – remind people that it is there. Be flexible about hours of work. Talk to the individual about they need. Address security concerns if you need to. Divert phone calls. Change phone numbers. Move locations. Consider discretionary time off. Think about where you have meetings; can people be seen from the street? Do the walls have glass? Help people move bank accounts quickly.
There are warning signs to watch out for. People who don’t want to go home. A change in appearance. Withdrawal. Absence. Never taking a holiday. Changes in behaviour. Changes in weight. Change of clothing style. Actual physical signs of violence.
Some other things to think about……
Start with the language that you use. Don’t use the word victim to describe someone enduring domestic abuse. It’s a label. It isn’t all of who the person is. It can be a word that stops people moving forward. It has judgement. Allow people to define their own language.
It will take time. You will need to work with people for a while. The manager will need to be involved. HR too. There are boundaries to find. There are some things that an employer should do, must do. We need to empower people, not disempower them. Encourage people to take steps, not do it for them. Don’t advise – it’s not our place. Keep records. If stuff happens on your premises, record it. It may help the individual in due course to have that information. Get the input of professionals. Refer, direct, signpost, support. Walk by their side. Always listen.
There are many people in an organisation that might find themselves talking to someone about domestic abuse. It might be a manager, someone in HR, a colleague, occupational health. The person might be approaching someone for the very first time. Can you educate or train the person who might get that disclosure? Can you provide resources that they can access on demand, when they need them? There may also be people who are witnesses or concerned colleagues who may also need information, someone to ask for advice.
The manager is critical. They may be the one that sees the signs. They may be the one that gets the disclosure. They may need to get involved in support or decision making. They will need support too, and this is where HR will come in. Some will need guidance on policies or what discretion they can exercise. They might also need someone to check in with them too, as this is not easy stuff to deal with.
Giving permission to talk about this stuff raises awareness. It might also mean that you hold up a mirror to something previously unseen. That your employees see that this might be them too, perhaps for the first time. The facilitators today told us stories about how often this happens. By going on training, reading guidance, seeing examples of just what domestic abuse includes, sometimes people will realise they need help. Be ready. You may need to move quickly in these situations.
The final thought….. employers can be part of a whole system approach. They are part of the solution. We don’t know who is experiencing this stuff, what challenges people are facing when they go home at the end of the working day. There is much we can do. Employers can help save people’s lives. And we start with awareness. We start with action. We start with all of us. This stuff is hard. But there is hope.
The training was provided by the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence. You can find their website here. I cannot recommend it more highly.