What should employers do about domestic violence?

What should employers do about domestic violence?

According to the National Centre for Domestic Violence, one in five adults will experience domestic abuse – whether that’s physical, sexual, psychological or financial – during their lifetime.

Ireland recently introduced the right to five days of paid domestic violence leave annually, to help those affected by domestic abuse to access the medical visits, legal advice and counselling they may need.

It’s unusual for Ireland to lead the UK on employment law, but the UK Government has since confirmed it won’t follow. It believes existing employment rights – such as the right to annual leave, emergency time off for dependants and flexible working – are sufficient.

This may sound plausible, but only if employers are empathetic and flexible. For example, not every workplace offers sick leave at full pay, so that may not be an option, especially as people experiencing abuse are often not in control of their finances.

Similarly, the intended purpose of annual leave is for rest and relaxation. And what happens if an incident takes place when an employee has already used up all their annual leave?

While researching the Irish approach, I spoke to Emma Richmond, partner with Dublin-based Whitney Moore.  She told me some employers feared the new leave could be exploited, as it is fully paid, and employees don’t need to provide proof of why it’s needed. However, she explained these aspects were deemed essential by Women’s Aid, whom the Irish government consulted with when drafting the new law – to protect confidentiality, dignity and financial independence.

Of course, employers don’t need to be mandated to provide better support for employees experiencing domestic violence. Some, such as Vodafone and South Ayrshire Council, already provide specific paid leave. The Irish government has produced guidance for employers; suggestions that UK employers could easily adopt. These include ensuring uncomplicated, confidential access to support at work, and training employees to handle situations involving domestic abuse confidently and empathetically.

The pandemic saw a spike in abuse as people were stuck at home with their perpetrators. It’s worth considering that working from home isn’t appropriate for everyone, and ensuring facilities to work on-site are always available is desirable.

Domestic abuse can often include financial control, so it’s important to think about how leave is reported. If something looks unusual on a payslip, like “domestic violence leave” or even “special leave”, it may disclose to an offender that their partner has reported the abuse. Employers should ensure the payslip includes all particulars required by law.

Employers could also offer membership of an income protection scheme that will cover employees’ salaries for a longer period if they are unable to work due to domestic violence.

When an employee returns after a period of absence, you should allow for a temporary impact on performance. If your workplace offers an employee assistance programme, consider signposting this and granting paid time off to attend ongoing counselling appointments.

Domestic abuse is such a pervasive issue that, even if the law doesn’t apply, there’s a strong argument that employers need to up their game when it comes to support, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

A version of this release is featured in The Herald (heraldscotland.com)

If you would like any more information or support, please get in touch with Jemma Forrest.

As part of her research into this topic, Jemma spoke with Emma Richmond, employment lawyer and joint Managing Partner of Dublin-based law firm, Whitney Moore. Thanks very much to Emma for her time and contribution.

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