Does HR have a role in preventing domestic violence?

by Nicola Middlemiss20 Oct 2015
Domestic violence has been a hot topic in recent months, with the debate being reignited in recent months following the tragic and highly publicised deaths of two women and a child.

Statistics show that so far this year, 63 women in Australia have died as a result of family violence, at the hands of either a former or current partner.

“There has been a noticeable response to these issues over last couple of years – domestic violence is now generating a lot of workroom chat,” said Claire Brattey, associate director at People + Culture Strategies.

Now, the conversation is beginning to move towards the workplace – so what can HR do to support victims?

Defining family violence

“The first thing employers need to do is ensure everyone has an appreciation of what domestic violence is about,” Brattey told HC. “A lot of people have a mindset that it always involves a physical assault, which is not the case.”

The Queensland government defines domestic and family violence using the following description:

“Domestic and family violence happens when one person in a relationship uses violence or abuse to control the other person. Domestic and family violence is usually an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling a partner through fear.”
Brattey added that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey 2006 showed that between 80 and 100 women die at the hands of their male partners every year.
Research from the 2012 survey revealed that it is not only women who are being victimised – 75 men were killed in domestic violence incidents between 2010 and 2012.
Workplace initiatives

Brattey noted that some companies – including NAB and Telstra – have had initiatives in place for some time. However, recent media attention has prompted many organisations to begin to consider the issue for the first time.

“Some of the initiatives we’ve already seen include allowing extra days off for victims of domestic violence,” Brattey said.

She emphasised that the employer’s initial consideration should be the duty of care they have to all employees.

They therefore need to consider how to support:
  • The employee who is experiencing domestic violence, or has a family member who is experiencing domestic violence
  • The employee who is the perpetrator
  • The impact on the wider workforce
“While an organisation might not have a domestic violence policy, it may decide to provide discretionary leave – by doing it this way, employees do not feel labelled, and are perhaps more willing to discuss the issue and seek support.”

“Consequently, the system may record discretionary leave, but HR can be in the background offering other forms of support to the employee as well.”

Brattey also reminded employers to remember that the Fair Work Act allows an employee who is experiencing domestic violence, or has a family member who is experiencing domestic violence, to make an application for flexible working arrangements. 

“Some organisations have had requests from grandparents who need some flexibility in their working arrangements so that they can collect their grandchildren from school or be at home on some days to care for them if the parent has to go to court,” Brattey said.

Could domestic violence policies become compulsory?

“The response to domestic violence incidences could perhaps take a bit more of a legislative turn, but making rules is not always part of the answer,” Brattey said.

“We need a wider education about changing our culture – but that isn’t to say that laws can’t play a part.”

She added that one of the biggest – and possibly most difficult – challenges for employers is ensuring that victims do not face discrimination.

“There are currently no consequences for employers who refuse to grant that leave, and some research has indicated that women are reluctant to apply for that leave in first place,” Brattey said.

“The knock-on effect from that is that people experiencing domestic violence have higher than average absences, because they need to take care of things outside of work which affects their performance,” Brattey explained.

“The perception to the employer is that these employees are too hard to manage.”

“All of these misunderstandings need to go into training on domestic violence; employers need to investigate why someone is underperforming, as it can often be about something other than a lack of capability.”

The key question for HR, Brattey said, is around how supportive the workplace is going to be.

“Statistics show that those in the decision-makers’ chairs are predominantly male,” she told HC.

“We’re dealing with an issue that is predominantly a male behaviour, which is something to consider as well – how will senior male employees cope with relating to and dealing with domestic violence victims? Is there going to be support and training for them?”

“We tend to get swept up with the person experiencing the problem, but there are consequences for everyone involved, including decision makers and the policy handlers.”

The full version of this article will be printed in the December issue of HRD magazine, hitting desks from November 28.


  • by Keith Wilkinson 20/10/2015 2:43:22 PM

    This is a fundamental issue for every organisation and I think it is likely that most large companies will have a Domestic Violence policy in place before 2020.
    The article mentions a key issue in passing and doesn't elaborate on it - the employees who are perpetrators. The statistics tell us 1 in 3 women are the victims of domestic violence the flip side of this is that 1 in 3 men within the workforce are perpetrators. How do employers address this? How do we educate our employees that bullying is unacceptable in the workplace and in the home!
    We need to demonstrate that this behaviour is not acceptable, while at the same time enabling our employees to seek help where they are involved in this abuse
    The more we can do to air this topic and provide the right support to all involved the more we can do to change people's lives and create a better workplace for all

  • by Kate Connellan 21/10/2015 11:42:02 AM

    Another initiative some employers are using is to become White Ribbon accredited. It involves a survey to establish a baseline and work out attitudes in the workplace, and then a training program.
    I have mulled over whether these issues are not too dissimilar from bullying issues in the workplace. Workplaces have traditionally had a reactive/ compliance approach to these too - but surely there must be some sort of pro-active behavioural training/ upskilling that can be done with staff to assist. I have looked into resilience training, but the US Army rolled out a massive program on this and it has shown no significant results (though anecdotally it was very popular).

  • by Bernie Althofer 21/10/2015 11:45:58 AM

    Having been a Regional Domestic Violence Liaison Officer, and having completed a thesis looking at how senior managers responded to workplace violence e.g. bullying, domestic violence and unlawful discrimination (including sexual harassment), I would suggest that whilst some ground has been made in relation to education and awareness, there is still some way to go.

    Domestic violence is a 'touchy' subject for some who have ingrained beliefs about what is and what is acceptable. Any form of violence is unacceptable and there may be those who don't understand how the abuse of power and control works.

    Over the years, literature continues to show that workplace violence has wide spread implications, not only from the physical and psychological aspect, but also the financial aspect. Attitudes that previously viewed domestic violence as 'just a family matter' are changing. Proactive and supportive executives understand that the impact of domestic violence does in fact flow through to the workplace and beyond. Some organisations have been proactive in providing education and awareness about what is domestic violence and who may be involved. However, it some cases, it does appear that the aggrieved will still be in a position where they have no power and are subjected to further abuses as they struggle to survive.

    It is a concern talking to individuals about domestic violence and then finding that they view what is happening to them as 'normal' because they don't equate the behaviour or conduct with domestic violence. In addition, when one looks around at the changes in society regarding the use of various social media 'tools', and one sees how various behaviours are used as 'entertainment', one can also see how individuals are not treated with respect and dignity as power and control are abused, and individuals are subjected to degrading conduct.

    Organisations may be 'busy' generating a profit in delivering a service to customers. However, one must also pose the question about how their profitability will suffer if it is demonstrated that a domestic violence death occurred because they did not treat it seriously. It does take like minded people who are serious about preventing violence to stand shoulder to shoulder and to stand up and speak out.

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