Supporting employees experiencing domestic violence
18 November 2021
By Zaynab Aly
Domestic violence is a serious issue in Australia affecting hundreds of thousands of individuals, regardless of their age, gender, or background. In 2020, the ABS reported a 13 per cent increase in family and domestic violence-related sexual assaults from the previous year. The COVID-19 pandemic has decreased the visibility of domestic violence while increasing its incidence. Whether your employees are returning to their workplaces or continuing to work from home, it’s a good idea to remind them that you’re there to support them through any domestic or family violence situations that may affect them and take steps to protect your workers from harm.
What is domestic violence?
Domestic violence is defined differently by various organisations and sources. The UN defines it as “a pattern of behaviour in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner”. Mission Australia characterises it as “violent behaviour between current or former intimate partners – typically where one partner tries to exert power and control over the other, usually through fear.”
When assessing eligibility for family and domestic violence leave, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act) specifies that family and domestic violence involves violent, threatening, or abusive behaviour from an employee’s close relative (including immediate family and kin) that seeks to coerce or control the employee by causing them harm or to be fearful.
The types of behaviour that constitute domestic violence are very broad, ranging from physical or sexual violence to emotional and financial abuse. Family violence can be experienced by any employee, so it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of potential domestic abuse, encourage employees to reach out to you on a confidential basis, and provide supports that they can rely on.
The effect of domestic violence is significant and long-lasting on the individual, their loved ones, and their community. The detrimental impact on mental and physical wellbeing may also impact the individual’s productivity and attendance at work, and this may make it harder for the person to speak to their employer about their experiences.
What do you need to do?
While you likely aren’t a therapist and aren’t expected to be one, it’s important to be supportive of your employees. This includes listening to their needs (such as through an ‘open-door policy’ or a mentor system) and providing tools to support them through their experience, including the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), flexible work arrangements, and domestic violence leave.
Where an employee does come to you with issues surrounding domestic violence, you’re required to take reasonable steps to keep this confidential except where it affects their or another person’s safety, or you’re required to disclose it by law. Keeping in mind that this information is often sensitive, the consequences of mishandling it can be serious for both the individual and the business. Having clear guidelines outlining how you will deal with this information will assist your employees to feel comfortable in coming forward.
For example, give some forethought to how you will record family and domestic violence leave in your payroll system and on payslips. While you may need a designated code to track leave entitlements, it may not be appropriate for that code to be easily recognisable by non-payroll staff. What if the perpetrator of the violence monitors the employee’s payslips, as is common for offenders who employ economic control?
Domestic violence leave
In 2018, domestic violence leave was introduced into the National Employment Standards (NES) in the FW Act. All employees, permanent and casual alike, now have access to five days of unpaid leave per 12-month period which is available in full at the start of their employment. While it doesn’t roll over each year, it renews in full at the beginning of each 12-month period. This leave entitlement may be accessed by any employee suffering from family and domestic violence, where they need to do something to deal with the impact of that violence and it’s impractical for the employee to do that thing outside the employee’s ordinary hours of work.
As employers, you can also offer or agree to give your employees more than five days of unpaid domestic violence leave per 12 months. Some organisations offer paid family and domestic violence leave, while others provide for employees to be able to access paid or unpaid personal or carer’s leave in such circumstances.
Flexible working arrangements
Employees who are experiencing domestic violence, or who are providing support to a member of their household or immediate family who is experiencing domestic violence, are entitled to make a flexible working arrangement request under the FW Act, and the employer may only refuse the request on reasonable business grounds.
An employee who makes such a request might be looking for a change in hours, patterns, or location of work. Perhaps they need to adjust their shifts to be able to speak to the police or plan their move away from the perpetrator.
As the employer, you must consider their request and it’s important to take into account the employee’s needs as well as those of the business. Where you can’t accommodate the request, discuss what you may be able to offer to help the employee achieve their purpose.
Local supports and training
To best support your employees, it’s worth familiarising yourself with locally available assistance programs, including women’s shelters and other services, as well as helplines such as Mensline and 1800RESPECT.
You may consider engaging in domestic violence awareness programs at work, to increase understanding of the issue and encourage employees to be comfortable speaking to you about their concerns or experiences. Providing training in your workplace on recognising and responding to domestic violence allows you to create a safe space for employees who may be in such situations. Not only might this help them feel more comfortable in coming forward, but it creates a healthy dialogue around a serious issue. Many mental health organisations do provide this sort of training, including Lifeline who provide it free to workers likely to encounter victims of domestic violence.
You need to know what entitlements your employees have surrounding domestic and family violence, and to ensure any policies you have are in line with how your business deals with it. Don’t wait for an employee to reach out before considering your obligations: act now so you’re best prepared for when anything arises.
If this article has raised concerns for you or someone you know, please reach out to any of these free support services.
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Zaynab Aly is a Workplace Relations Consultant at HR Assured (our sister company). She has a particular interest in the retail industry and regularly provides advice on workplace matters to find solutions for clients.
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