Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Here, Lawyers Weekly explores why better protections for employees against domestic and family violence is increasingly essential and how businesses can move forward.
Why do it?
Domestic violence, Mel Thomas (pictured, left) told Lawyers Weekly, costs Australian businesses over $2 billion every year.
More than three in five (62 per cent) of women, she added, who have experienced domestic violence are in the paid workforce.
“Domestic and family violence knows no boundaries of geography, wealth, culture, sexuality or religion. To put numbers into perspective, one in six Australian women and one in 16 men are directly impacted by family and domestic violence,” she outlined.
It is essential that Australian corporate entities move to better protect their staff against domestic and family violence – particularly as we move towards a post-pandemic world – both “because it is the right thing to do”, Ms Thomas argued, but also because “it makes economic sense”.
Firstly, because it is the right thing to do. In addition, it makes economic sense. Every year domestic violence costs Australian businesses over $2 billion. Sixty-two per cent of women who have experienced domestic violence are in the paid workforce.
“The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (Cth) requires workplaces with 100 or more employees to report annually on whether there is a formal workplace policy or strategy or other measures in the workplace to support employees experiencing domestic and family violence. It is therefore appropriate and good corporate governance,” she said.
“Further, and thanks in part to the pandemic, the corporate mask is slipping. We’ve zoomed into our personal lives; our bosses have been in our living rooms and colleagues have seen our cats. The days of leaving the heavy lifting to frontline workers are long gone.”
Critical considerations for workplace policies
Ms Thomas, an advocate and survivor of domestic violence, is the founder and CEO of KYUP! Project. She runs awareness programs in schools, women’s refuges and indigenous communities and works with corporate entities such as law firms to assist with the drafting of domestic violence policies.
When drafted, she said, such policies “should stand alone, be readily accessible and simple to understand”.
“Don’t bury policy deep in your intranet or send employees in a million different directions to get assistance. Given one woman is killed in Australia on average every nine days and 78 per cent of perpetrators who use domestic violence have done so during work hours using workplace resources, businesses should treat family and domestic violence training as important as fire drill training,” she explained.
“Do your research on referral support services and road test your Employee Assistance Program by making calls and asking questions. Actually, test out the service to ensure it will provide the appropriate advice and sensitivity to those staff who may need to access it.”
2017 Young Australian of the Year finalist Tarang Chawla (pictured, top right), a law graduate turned gender equality and mental health advocate, became an activist against men’s violence following the murder of his sister six years ago.
Law firms and in-house legal teams, he said, must better understand that “the home is one of the most dangerous spaces for those experiencing violence or abuse”.
“In this way, measures implemented for traditional workplace environments are not likely to be sufficient or helpful.”
“For example, firms need to be proactive to develop workplace policy that supports employees experiencing family violence, especially if they are working from home, providing ongoing education and training, and fostering a culture of trust where employees who require assistance are comfortable to disclose and are then adequately and appropriately supported,” he detailed.
Better engaging staff
Amani Haydar (pictured, bottom right) supported this. Ms Haydar – a lawyer, artist and advocate for women’s health and safety who spoke on The Lawyers Weekly Show two years ago about her mother’s murder at the hands of her father and how she navigated the resulting legal proceedings – said that normalising conversations about gender-based violence is fundamentally important.
This must happen, she said, regardless of whether work is in-person or virtual.
“Training around how to respond to disclosures in a trauma-informed and competent manner can help make HR departments, partners and employees identify red flags and respond effectively to disclosures. An understanding of how everyday sexism, which is often entrenched in workplace culture, contributes to women feeling unsafe is also important because the research shows that casual sexism sits on the same continuum as serious gender-based violence,” she said.
“We know that COVID-19 has created a ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic abuse because victims may be spending more time at home with an abuser.
“Where employees are working from home, it is important for them to be provided with information about who to contact and what arrangements can be made if home is not a safe place and for lines of communication to exist between employers and employees about flexible work arrangements in the event that an employee experiences DV.”
Domestic abuse is not always physical, she outlined, and so employers “should be mindful that some employees may require financial support to set up suitable work from home arrangements, and not all will have the privacy they need to call in when abuse has taken place so employers should try to provide discrete options via links and casual check-ins”.
Moreover, Ms Thomas chipped in, employees want to see a face on such a workplace policy.
“Domestic violence is personal. Sometimes hearing about it is as much about awareness as validation of those who are victims and fear speaking up,” she said.
“The key to engaging with staff and raising awareness of a domestic violence policy is an organisation-wide launch championed by senior management.”
Another factor, Ms Haydar added, is that victims “may be overwhelmed” by legal processes and financial stress in the aftermath of domestic or family violence.
“They might be living in temporary accommodation, developing a safety plan and liaising with police and counsellors. They may have to establish new childcare or schooling arrangements for their kids, they may require urgent medical attention if there has been an assault, or – as was the case for me – they might be affected by bereavement and grief.
“Employers can help alleviate stress by providing generous and flexible domestic violence leave, and that is ultimately going to make the workplace safer and better for employee wellbeing in the long term,” she suggested.
“Additionally, the culture at some firms might discourage employees from disclosing their circumstances because of stigma or because of an assumption that legal practitioners are capable of avoiding or getting out of DV on their own when this is not the case – anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship,” Ms Haydar noted.
“We all have a responsibility to make the workplace more accommodating of disclosures.”
How are law firms and legal teams faring?
On the whole, Mr Chawla surmised, firms and in-house departments are improving in their support of employees both experiencing domestic and family violence and in terms of the culture, they are trying to set in relation to these issues.
However, he said, this comes with a caveat.
“Process remains slow, and in some instances, glacially slow,” he reflected.
“Employees benefit from setting a culture of openness and transparency around such issues, particularly where firms champion gender equality and diversity, which leads to less stigma around workplace reporting and ultimately, greater productivity for firms.”
All employees, Ms Haydar outlined, are entitled to five days of unpaid domestic and family violence leave each year under the National Employment Standards.
“Some organisations have implemented more generous domestic violence leave provisions out of their own initiative; however, less progressive firms often only provide what is required by the law and may not understand the upheaval that DV can have on a person’s day to day life and that five days may not be enough,” she posited.
Paid leave, Ms Thomas deduced, is “vital”.
“Put simply, without paid leave, victims can’t escape.
“Recent reports have found leaving a violent relationship takes on average $18,000 and 141 hours. Financial support during this time and having the time and support to do it is critical,” she advised.
“Studies have shown women escaping domestic violence suffer the same PTSD symptoms as frontline soldiers – after victims escape, time is needed to heal and rebuild their lives.”
Reasons for optimism
This all said, Ms Thomas noted, her work through KYUP! Project has demonstrated that people do care about these issues, “and they want to do something”.
“They just don’t know what to do,” she explained.
“Whilst many businesses are producing policy, the heart and face of the policy are missing. Our mission is to make it easier for corporates and law firms to lead the way and implement policy, training and awareness.”
Mr Chawla said that he is also hopeful “because there is a greater shift in corporate workplace policies around gender equality, diversity and inclusion – areas which contribute to creating safer workplaces”.
“However, we need corporate workplaces to model what is appropriate behaviour and to also ensure they are proactive with having measures in place,” he warned.
“Workplaces are often a safe refuge for those experiencing domestic and family violence, especially women, and proactive measures will provide significantly greater levels of support as well as sending a message to employees who may be perpetrators that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated.”