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How should HR handle a case of domestic abuse?

A fifth of crimes reported during the first lockdown and England and Wales involved domestic abuse, according to the ONS
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With soaring rates of calls to domestic abuse helplines throughout the Covid pandemic and coverage of the Johnny Depp vs The Sun trial, it is now becoming a key issue for HR. How should HR handle workers accused of domestic abuse? Maria Strauss explains. 

The Office for National Statistics revealed this week that a fifth of crimes reported during the first lockdown and England and Wales involved domestic abuse. Police recorded more than 250,000 offences flagged as domestic violence, according to the data. It has also been in the news because actor Johnny Depp has pursued (and lost) a libel case against The Sun newspaper, which called him a “wife beater”.

If an employee has been accused of an offence, this can be a delicate issue for HR to handle, but there are a number of areas for consideration.

Code of conduct and policies

First and foremost, the code of conduct and the company’s policies should make clear that all forms of abuse – including domestic abuse – are strictly prohibited.

It is vital that these policies give HR the power to take into account matters outside the workplace, stressing that domestic abuse may result in:

  • disciplinary action, including dismissal
  • notification to the police
  • notification to any regulators or professional associations where relevant, and
  • in some cases, injunctions preventing entry into the organisation.

However, not all cases need to result in disciplinary sanctions.

In some situations, a domestic abuse perpetrator may voluntarily seek help from HR, who can provide support without this meaning that HR are condoning the abuse.

Perpetrators may benefit from professional help if they have a genuine wish to change their behaviour, and there are external organisations who specialise in supporting these individuals.

In such circumstances, HR can consider a package of support – including access to specialist services or time off for counselling – after conducting a clear risk assessment of the situation and taking advice if needed from specialist services.

Should HR take action?

Consider the following scenario. A manager approaches HR to say that a senior employee has been spotted assaulting their domestic partner and using the employer’s equipment to commit online forms of abuse. This undoubtedly poses a serious situation for HR.

Post #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, all organisations should be demonstrating a commitment to creating safe and respectful working environments. This is what customers, the workforce, stakeholders and regulators demand.

An embedded domestic abuse strategy that sets out how perpetrators will be dealt with is a natural extension of this.

Hence why, when an employee is using the employer’s equipment to commit abuse or committing the abuse during work hours or on work premises, management and must intervene in a safe way.

There are plenty of circumstances in which employers can and do discipline for misconduct outside the workplace, most notably when the employee’s actions risk bringing the business into disrepute – be the transgression in question physical assault, drug offences, or racist or sexist remarks.

HR must remember that domestic abuse falls into this same criminal sphere, and if an employer would take a stance on other criminal misconduct, then the same must apply when it comes to a domestic abuser within the workforce.

Domestic abuse can be discovered in other ways. Sometimes the victim alerts the employer or a well-informed and trained manager may spot indicators of abuse, including: derogatory comments made by the perpetrator about their partner; anger and blaming their partner; constant contact or attempts to contact their partner, or even injuries (perhaps from the victim trying to defend themselves).

Next steps: key considerations for HR

There are a number of immediate questions HR should be asking themselves to guide their response to a specific case, including:

  • What are the immediate risks or needs of the perpetrator, victim and their children? And are we equipped to help in the scenario?
  • How do we proceed having regard for everyone’s safety?
  • Does the accused worker present any type of risk to other staff, clients and other third parties?
  • Is the accused worker facing a police investigation or court proceedings?
  • What is the job being performed by the alleged perpetrator? Are they working with children and young people, or a role such as safeguarding or front-line services (police or mental health services)? Are they suitable to remain in that role?
  • Is it possible for the management to investigate the case? Do we have digital evidence that must be preserved or, for example, CCTV footage?

Depending on a range of factors, an employer can consider several different measures, from supporting a perpetrator to change their behaviour, conducting suitability assessments, supervision or even disciplinary, and dismissing them from their role in line with the procedures, having regard to the wider context such as Court proceedings.

Fundamental dos and don’ts

Though each case of domestic abuse is unique and deeply personal, the following ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ are applicable whatever the scenario and can guide you through the difficult process:

  • Do be available and approachable, responding in a non-judgemental manner
  • Do proceed on a safety-first basis and risk assess the information that you have
  • Do carefully and safely find out as much information as possible
  • Do refer to the authorities (the police) where it is clear there are immediate risks to the victim, children, co-workers or third parties
  • Do ensure confidentiality except when you need to make referrals
  • Do treat the perpetrator fairly and ensure they have access to independent advice and support
  • Do treat every case on an individual basis with the aim of reducing risk and supporting meaningful change
  • Do seek specialist help and advice
  • Don’t ever put yourself in an unsafe scenario with someone accused of domestic abuse
  • Don’t ever suggest that the matter can be dealt with informally between the victim and perpetrator or attempt to get involved in a relationship problem
  • Don’t pass judgement on the situation, but follow a clear process.

Domestic abuse is a complex and sensitive issue where people’s safety and well-being can be at significant risk. HRs should remain mindful of this throughout and take specialist advice when necessary.

If you are concerned for your own or someone else’s immediate safety, you must ring 999 immediately. And, whether a victim or a concerned co-worker, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline for free on 0808 2000 247 or email helpline@womensaid.org.uk.

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Written by HR Today

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