How to deal with domestic violence at work

An experienced social worker walks us through the process of handling both victims and perpetrators

How to deal with domestic violence at work

Here’s a sobering reality: Singapore’s adult and child protective services reported seeing a 40% increase in the number of calls related to family violence in 2020, compared with the same period the year before. Even though not all calls were related to violence, the figure included repeat enquiries by the same individuals or multiple callers reporting the same incidents, proving just how much challenging COVID-19 has been for families in lockdown.

To help deal with the overwhelming rise in reports, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) officially launched the 24/7 National Anti-Violence Helpline (NAVH) in February to eliminate the need for callers to scramble through multiple hotlines and enable a timelier response to victims in their hour of need. Before 2021, there were about five helplines for reporting child abuse and another five for family violence, according to MSF.

You can still call in to the existing numbers, but the new 1800 number will offer even more critical support to the community. NAVH has actually been in operation since January 18 and barely one month in, they’ve received about 450 calls, said MSF.

Read more: Domestic violence: What’s HR’s role in protecting employees?

Are employers responsible for domestic violence victims?

If there isn’t a clearer call to action for the alarming crisis, this is it. But what can employers do to help? Isn’t domestic violence just that – a domestic and personal issue? In a United Women Singapore (UWS) webinar attended by HRD, Dr Razwana Begum, Head of Public Safety & Security Programme at Singapore University of Social Sciences strongly disagreed with the notion.

“A common understanding or reasoning given [by employers] is that it is a personal matter,” said Dr Begum. “It is none of my business. It’s between husband and wife. It’s not happening here [at work so] I don’t see it – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening at home.”

With remote arrangements being the norm now and likely the future of how we work, leaders must toss out the excuses because now what goes down in your employee’s home office is your business and you are responsible to fulfil your duty of care. The experienced social worker thus encouraged employers to reflect on two things:

  • Firstly, what’s your responsibility to ensure a safe and secure working environment when employees are locked up at home?
  • Secondly, what can you do to extend support to perpetrators who are using violence to resolve conflicts?

Read more: Can remote workers claim compensation for injuries?

Besides your role in providing a duty of care to employees, Dr Begum reminded that it’s simply the civic thing to do in Singapore. “The penal code clearly highlights [that] it’s important to report any kind of arrestable offences,” she said. “Most domestic violence type of offences would fall within that purview.”

This means you’re encouraged to make a report if you see evidence of threatening or controlling behaviour. According to MSF this could be things like physical injury, direct or indirect threats, sexual assault, emotional and psychological torment, damage to property, social isolation or any behaviour which causes a person to live in fear.

So as a citizen or resident in the country, she believes you should ask yourself:

  • What’s your role and responsibility to uphold justice?
  • If you were to report the offence, do you need to get consent from the victim or the perpetrator?

Read more: How can HR help employees facing family violence?

How to handle perpetrators of violence

What’s interesting during the virtual session was that Dr Begum kept reinforcing the need to support both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. She acknowledged that her approach may sound a tad idealistic, but she believes that besides playing your part – whether as a neighbour, loved one, fellow citizen, employer, or government agency – to tackle the sensitive problem, all of us should aim to help all parties cope with violence.

She also reminded both females and males can experience domestic altercations, and shared a case she handled where a woman was jailed for a day after slashing her husband. She interviewed both the husband and wife, and while the offence carried a mandatory prison sentence, the judge decided to give a minimal term as she was pregnant at the time.

The case taught her many things about handling domestic violence, one of which being that the perpetrator is usually experiencing “a lot of other issues as well”. The other being that, at the end of the day, when it comes to family issues, there is a need to help support both sides to focus on repairing individuals and relationships.

“I realised that it’s important to kind of find ways to [help them] have closure,” she said. “Sometimes it’s still important to address this traumatic experience by allowing [perpetrators] an opportunity to speak out, so it’s not just from a victim’s perspective.”

Of course, if you found out that your employee was a victim of violence, you should render as much support as you can, in terms of getting professional help or offering a chance to report the case to the police. But she believes supporting perpetrators is important because you don’t want to end up alienating or angering them further. When that happens, they can easily resort to taking out their anger at home, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of violence.

“This is where you as an employer may have an advantage – of wanting to make sure that your employees are performing well and also that they’re getting the help that they needed,” she said.

“[Monitor whether] they are progressing in the treatment or in terms of getting help. Do they have a way to cope with their rage? Can they solve their conflicts in a peaceful and amicable manner? Your ability to monitor and evaluate [staff] are equally important.”

Read more: Deloitte chief talent officer: Why you need an anti-violence policy

What’s your role in supporting employees?

While it’s a tricky situation to handle, employers thus play a crucial role to help support the work of social workers and professionals handling the case. Dr Begum’s session was also a reminder that whatever you personally feel when you find out that your employees are victims or perpetrators of violence, you should try and adopt the role of a neutral third party.

This means you should neither be the judge and sentence the offender, nor attempt to do the work of social workers, mental health professionals or counsellors. This is also why many experts, including herself, are wary of the zero-tolerance approach.

“It may not necessarily work,” she said. “The fact is that sending them away from the workplace is just going to perpetuate the problem because they kind of go back home and cause more harm to their families and to their children. As a society or workplace, we [aim to] handle misconduct and not necessarily terminate them.”

Read more: 2 in 3 employees 'unable' to report abuse to HR

By deciding to have ‘zero tolerance’ you may end up perpetuating the concept that violence is not accepted within the workplace but “whatever that you do outside of workplace” is not your concern. She believes that with such policies, it’ll be difficult to get people to come out and share their problems.

“As an employer, you’re part of the larger community, so what can you do to support the victims and prevent this domestic violence situation from perpetuating?” she said. “Also, it’s about creating [a sense of] community to come together and address this problem.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the following hotlines:

  • National Anti-Violence Helpline – 1800 777 0000
  • PAVE – 6555 0390
  • TRANS SAFE Centre – 6449 9088
  • Care Corner Project StART –6476 1482
  • In case of immediate threat, call the police at 999

Recent articles & video

How to deal with a co-worker who steals your ideas

In a pandemic, music is a lifeline

Struggling to sleep? Hybrid work may be damaging your slumber

COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for MIQ staff, govt says

Most Read Articles

Can HR ban unvaccinated staff from travelling?

These companies have the best workplace cultures, according to employees

Fun Friday: Weird and witty job titles don’t always work