Directors have a role to play in ending domestic abuse

One of the Midlands’ leading police officers has called on the region’s business leaders and directors to do more to help employees who are the victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Assistant Chief Constable Kerrin Wilson of Lincolnshire Police said businesses need their own strategies to tackle what is a growing problem, with figures revealing that one-in-four women have suffered abuse in the home or from their partner – a truly horrifying statistic.

What is possibly more surprising is that one-in-seven men have suffered similar abuse, making it an issue affecting huge swathes of the workforce.

Kerrin – a member of the IoD and the East Midlands Ambassador for policing and criminal justice – said all businesses should have policies in place for identifying victims of domestic abuse, with line managers coached to recognise tell-tales signs that an employee may be a victim, and to help them access the right support.

Tackling domestic abuse has been one of Kerrin’s key focuses for some time and through her links with the IoD she’s keen to raise awareness.

“I joined the IoD because, though the police force is a public sector body, I’ve always believed it needs to be managed and led to the same high standards of corporate governance as any company in the private sector,” she said. “We need to look outside the police for new ways to manage our teams and the work they do. The only difference between my employees and those of any other business is their role – they are providing a service to the public, but it’s one of security and protection.

“Through the IoD I’m keen to reach out to business leaders and directors as part of our brief to inform and educate the public on key policing matters. Getting the public on side with major issues such as domestic violence makes it easier for us to tackle the problem, keep our communities safe and protect the public.”

To get her message across, Kerrin will be hosting IoD members’ evenings via Zoom in which she will highlight the impact of domestic violence on businesses – and how the problem is more widespread than people realise.

“People tend to be shocked when I tell them that a quarter of women have faced domestic abuse, and even moreso when I reveal that one-in-seven men have suffered, too,” she says. The abuse can take many forms: outright physical violence is clearly the most worrying manifestation of an abusive relationship but controlling behaviours that stifle independence and constant harassment of your partner can have an equally devastating impact on people’s lives.

Kerrin understands only too well how destructive to your confidence a partner’s controlling behaviour can be, as she has been a victim of it herself and is happy to talk about her own experiences. “When I was a younger police officer I was given opportunities to advance in the service but my then husband pressured me to turn them down. It was a suffocating, upsetting experience.”

While there is a clear moral case for helping victims, Kerrin pointed out that there is a business case. “The impact of domestic abuse on businesses is huge. A Directors have a role to play in ending domestic abuse survey by the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse found that over 50 per cent of victims admitted their work had suffered or they had been less productive as a direct consequence of the abuse they had experienced, while the same number admitted to higher rates of absenteeism and lateness.

“Security problems had been created in one-in-six cases, with roughly the same number of victims opting to leave their jobs because of the stress the abuse caused.”

Overall, Kerrin says the cost to business of domestic violence is likely to run into the millions. Which begs the question, notwithstanding the moral issue of supporting domestic abuse victims, don’t you want to tackle an issue that impacts on your productivity or could force your best team members to leave your company?

Kerrin accepts that it’s challenging to understand both the scale of the problem and how it affects victims. “There’s the classic scenario, where the victim comes to work showing signs of violence – bruising, scratches, etc,” says Kerrin. “That’s easy to identify. You’ll expect to hear excuses for the injuries and it will become noticeable how often they have ‘falls’ or accidents at home. They are the obvious tell-tale signs.”

But domestic abuse is a complex problem and identifying victims within your workforce can be hard. “Domestic abuse isn’t just about violence, it’s about controlling and fear,” says Kerrin. “So while you can reach out to help someone if they show visible signs, that’s not the only thing to look out for. “Look for a change in personality – someone who used to be bright and bubbly but suddenly becomes more withdrawn, particularly if you know they are in a new relationship. Alternatively, someone who used to be very calm becomes more argumentative and difficult to work with. In other words, you’re looking for sharp mood swings.” But there are other ‘tells’ that could suggest a problem. “Perhaps they never attend company events outside office hours, or when partners are invited to social events they never show. But it’s sometimes so subtle as to be easy to miss. Look for people who stay longer at work without any reason to, or are coming in earlier than they need. It’s not absolute proof but it could suggest there’s a fear about going home and the employee is looking to minimise their time there.

“One of the really distressing things about domestic violence is that the workplace could be the victim’s only place of safety,” says Kerrin. “Victims are often stopped from seeing family and friends, so work is the only place they really feel free from their abuser. Can you imagine how awful that must feel?”

There are other issues to consider. As Kerrin points out, “a prosecution for domestic violence often results in the victim taking out a protection notice banning the assailant from the vicinity of their home. However, it is unlikely that this notice will cover the workplace, leaving them vulnerable to being harassed or stalked at work. “Therefore, is your workplace unwittingly the venue for a campaign of harassment?” asks Kerrin. “It’s also difficult to counter if your employee is on the move a lot during the day, perhaps as a salesperson or someone who has different places of work each day.”

It’s also hard to tackle if you are based in a large office block with a number of other firms and access is difficult to control. So what can companies do? The first thing is to look at your HR policies, says Kerrin. “Businesses should have policies for dealing with bullying or racism, but it’s rare to find one with a stated policy for countering domestic violence and abuse. Research suggests only five per cent of businesses have such a policy. Change that; make sure your organisation has a way to handle cases where you think an employee is a victim of domestic abuse. Tell your line managers what to look out for. Hold wellbeing checks with team members and ask if everything is okay at home. Make it clear that you are open to conversations on the issue and can help.”

What’s important to stress is that Kerrin isn’t suggesting the employer steps in and provides direct assistance. “This is a very complicated issue and it needs trained professionals to help unpick the problems. It could be it requires police intervention or help from one of the many agencies who specialise in domestic abuse. Your job is to make potential victims aware that you are ready to help. Have contact details available of local agencies or counsellors.”

The way to look at it is similar to talking to an employee if you believe they may have a physical health problem. “We wouldn’t expect a company director to diagnose someone’s physical ailments – they’d suggest the employee sees a doctor. Handle domestic abuse in a similar way; be sympathetic, show you understand the issue and signpost the employee to professional help.”

It’s possible a director could offer practical interventions. “If the employee confides in you and says they are worried about a violent ex-partner, offer security in the workplace, even if it’s just increased vigilance or someone who will walk them to their car at night. If they are leaving the workplace and feel vulnerable, can you change their schedule?”

But is there a fear that directors could be seen as interfering in someone’s private life away from the workplace? “I can see why people could be concerned about that but let me turn that round – what does that say about your values? We’re talking about a crime here; if you are turning a blind eye to it, what does that say about you and your business? What other criminal behaviour are you prepared to turn a blind eye to?”

This problem isn’t going away anytime soon either. Worryingly, Kerrin reveals that an acceptance that domestic abuse is in some way normal in a relationship is becoming common among younger people. A recent survey found that a quarter of young people accept physical violence as part of a relationship, and there is growing evidence that this is true for both sexes and we are seeing more examples of women attacking men.

Where the victim is male or in same-sex relationships there is likely to be a greater reluctance in opening up about the issue. “Historically, it’s not men that are seen as victims of domestic abuse, it’s women being abused by men, so men or those in same-sex relationships are less likely to reach out for help. You just need to reassure them that you are there to help and give them the information they need to access professional support.”

Another major challenge comes when you are aware that a member of your team could be an abuser themselves. “If you hear of someone talking about their partner in terms that concerns you, consider telling them what you’ve heard and saying how unacceptable it is. If you think there is a danger to their partner, call the police non-emergency number on 101 to report your concerns.”

The chances are this won’t be an isolated incident, says Kerrin. “I think it is likely that the person in question will already be known to you as a challenging employee.”

Another big issue for businesses at the moment is modern slavery, and this has similarities with the domestic abuse agenda. It requires a similar response, says Kerrin. “Most businesses don’t think modern slavery is an issue for them, but it is possible, particularly if you are in the farming or food sectors where temporary, transient labour is used to boost your regular workforce at peak times.

“It’s important your HR policies consider modern slavery. If you use contractors, you have a responsibility to them. Check on their welfare. If they are staying in temporary accommodation on your land, which is common in the farming sector, make sure you check it’s suitable. Even if you’re not providing the facilities, you have a responsibility to make sure they are habitable.”

It’s important to remember that you’re not expected to fix the problem of domestic abuse, Kerrin says. Rather, “you’re being alive to it and making your employees know that there is a safe space in which they can talk about what’s going on in their lives. Your office could be the only sanctuary in which a domestic abuse victim can talk about their fears; make sure you are listening.”

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