Support structures for domestic abuse victims

by Stephanie Zillman26 Nov 2012

In a speech delivered in Sydney on Friday, Sex Discrimination Elizabeth Broderick called for employers to start viewing domestic violence as a workplace issue – and given some 800,000 working women experience violence at home, it’s likely to be happening in your workplace.

At the NEEOPA (NSW Equal Employment Opportunity Practitioners' Association) meeting, Broderick praised Australian workplaces for having engaged with issues outside the workplace that affect them and their employees, but said one issue that Australian workplaces have been slow to address is domestic violence. “It’s not that the business leaders don’t think domestic violence is an important issue – it’s that many of them don’t always think of domestic violence as a workplace issue,” Broderick said.

The commissioner called on employers to consider how business leaders themselves would have their work participation and performance affected if they were a victim of domestic violence, or even had a friend, colleague or manager who was. “How would you explain to your manager that you needed time off work to attend legal proceedings, move into a domestic violence shelter, or see a doctor? What would you say if you had already used up your leave allowance?” she questioned.

For this reason, Broderick called on employers to develop a procedural response in the form of following practical steps workplaces if it is known or suspected that an employee is experiencing or has recently experienced domestic violence or is perpetrating domestic violence.

1. Identify domestic violence as a workplace issue and begin a conversation about domestic violence

According to the 2011 National Domestic Violence and the Workplace Survey, less than half (48%) of respondents who had experienced domestic violence disclosed it to a manager or supervisor.

By starting a conversation about domestic violence, employers can send a clear message to their employees that:

  • domestic violence is an issue that affects the workplace;
  • those experiencing it are not alone;
  • they should feel confident that disclosing a violent situation will not result in adverse consequences for them or their employment;
  • bystanders should stand up against violence in the workplace;
  • their employer will support them and work with them to find solutions to their situation, for example by developing a safety plan; and
  • Violent behaviour and using employer resources to perpetrate violence in another workplace is not tolerated.

2. Provide a supportive environment

A growing number of workplaces are developing policies and processes to support victims and survivors of domestic violence:

Some workplaces have included an entitlement to domestic violence leave in their enterprise agreements. For example, the University of New South Wales expressly acknowledges in its enterprise agreement that ‘both female and male employees sometimes experience situations of violence or abuse in their personal life that may affect attendance or performance at work’. It further acknowledges that University employees experiencing domestic violence may need to access a broad range of support and makes provisions for access to certain types of leave, flexible work arrangements and the ability to change one’s work location, telephone number and email address.

Others workplaces offer flexible work arrangements, special leave, the ability to change extension numbers or leave a bag of belongings in a safe place, the possibility of working in another office, and domestic violence support information through workplace training and induction.

3. Recognise and address abusive behaviour

Violence often spills over from the home into the workplace and perpetrators of domestic violence have also been known to bully or be aggressive towards colleagues. Of the respondents to the 2011 National Domestic Violence and Workplace Survey who reported experiencing violence, 19% said that the violence had continued in the workplace, including through abusive phone calls and emails and the perpetrator presenting at the workplace of the victim.

Employers can play a vital role in recognising this behaviour and facilitating crucial change.

4. Provide education and training on domestic violence

Employers can play a broader educative role, increasing their own and their employees’ understanding about domestic violence. Education and training that identifies domestic violence as a workplace issue and equips workplaces to respond effectively can offer pathways out of violence for those experiencing it.


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