Employers told to look out for the signs of domestic violence or 'they could be held liable'

'If you don’t do the work you can be held liable for not protecting staff'

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In the advice from the Government’s health agency, managers will be asked to spot sudden shifts in behaviour, or changes to clothing and appearance which may disguise bruising, and are to be encouraged to approach staff sensitively and offer help.

One in four women and one in six men experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, which can include physical, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. More than half of abused women miss at least three days of work a month, while in any one year 2 per cent of employees in the UK lose their jobs as a direct result of domestic violence.

The new guidance by PHE stresses to managers that it is part of their job to spot people who are being abused. The advice is published as part of a campaign, 16 Days of Action, launched next week to highlight the responsibilities that employers have to protect their staff.

The briefing says: “Women often experience repeated abuse for longer than men before reaching out for help. This means you may well be involved in managing someone who has experienced or is experiencing domestic abuse, as well as those who are perpetrators of abuse.”

Although some may see their office as a refuge from personal conflict, victims can be harassed by phone or by email or even approached while at work. For those who have left an abusive partner, their workplace may be the only place they can be easily located and, despite changes to US legislation, in the UK a workplace cannot be named in a restraining order.

Despite this a study commissioned by the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (Caadv), the charity working with PHE to advise employers, only 18 per cent of HR managers agree that domestic violence is a high priority for their business. A third believe they have no legal responsibility to protect their employees’ safety.


The guidance tells employers to divert phone calls and email messages and offer employees a new phone extension number if required. They should record any incidents that take place at work, ensure that staff do not have to work alone or in isolated areas, and put up posters to highlight the support available for staff who disclose difficulties in their personal life.

Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at PHE, said, “Bringing discussions of domestic violence into the workplace is a crucial step in providing routes to safety for people enduring violence”. Using the guidance would also help businesses to prevent financial loss due to unexplained absence from work and higher staff turnover, he added.

Melissa Morbeck, director of Caadv, said she had worked with one public sector organisation in the UK which had reported a staff member leaving suitcases under their desk as they were unsafe in their home. “The most important thing is for businesses to realise that it happens within their workplace. It isn’t a private issue,” she said. “If you don’t do the work you can be held liable for not protecting staff.”

The NHS is one of the first organisations to train its staff in dealing with domestic violence. Sue Covill, director of employment services at NHS Employers, said guidance was necessary because many managers would not be confident enough to intervene. “It’s not about the workplace intruding into personal matters but  helping to ensure the workplace doesn’t get in the way and can even speed up the process of recovery,” she said. “Even a small change to an employee’s working week can give them the space they need to seek protection, go to court, arrange childcare, or seek counselling.”

Case Study: How one victim benefited from her employer’s support

Barbara (not her real name) was working in human resources for a major law firm when she first helped introduce her staff to their responsibilities towards employees facing domestic violence. Less than two years later, she would be a beneficiary of those policies herself.

“At that stage it wasn’t an issue for me personally. I didn’t believe something like that would happen to me. I never thought I would benefiting,” she explains.

Barbara became a victim of escalating verbal and emotional abuse from her husband, and when she realised it was affecting her children she began to make plans to leave.

“If I hadn’t known I was at an organisation where I would get whatever I needed I might not have been able to ask,” she says. “What I needed was not to  be expected to be performing at work.”

Barbara made firm plans for her separation and let her workplace know. “I booked a cottage in the Cotswolds so I had somewhere I could escape to. I brought our passports into work in case he tried to take the children.”

Barbara is now separated and going through a divorce. Her employer has been continually supportive as she starts a new life free from abuse, though she still needs time off to pick up the pieces.