Does HR have a role in preventing domestic violence?

HC speaks to an employment lawyer about steps HR can take to assist victims of family violence in their workforce.

Does HR have a role in preventing domestic violence?
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.

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