Rae Tooth is CEO of social mobility charity Villiers Park Trust
Today (25 November) is White Ribbon Day, when thousands of people stand together against violence against women and girls. As one of a small but growing number of employers to offer paid leave to victims of domestic abuse, social mobility charity CEO Rae Tooth explains why.
Abusive relationships are complex and, without exception, take great courage to leave. On average someone is assaulted 34 times before the police become involved. According to research by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, a woman will try to leave an abusive relationship seven times before actually being able to end it.
One barrier to leaving is the fear of losing your job because of the need to take unplanned time off, or because your partner threatens to jeopardise your relationship with your employer.
Simply acknowledging that domestic abuse is a problem is not enough. We need action. This is why Villiers Park, the national social mobility charity of which I am chief executive, has become one of the first in the UK to give up to 10 days of additional paid leave to staff who are fleeing an abusive relationship.
This year’s White Ribbon Day campaign is more important than ever. There has been a sharp increase in violence, harassment and abuse towards women during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the first seven weeks of lockdown, police received a report of domestic abuse every 30 seconds, according to research by BBC Panorama and Women’s Aid. In May, the number of calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 66 per cent, with visits to its website up by a staggering 950 per cent on pre-lockdown levels.
Domestic abuse is an issue close to my heart. I’ve seen the devastating impact it can have on individuals and their families.
And escaping from abuse is difficult enough without having to think about the knock-on effect on one’s job. Let’s be frank: in a time of crisis, no-one should have to worry about losing pay or having enough leave to attend court hearings. Under our new policy, we have pledged to support a member of staff fleeing domestic abuse and will provide up to five days’ paid leave to make appropriate longer-term arrangements. If they need it, they will receive an additional five days to attend court hearings relating to criminal prosecution or child protection.
This policy is something which we feel compelled to do, but it is not something we are required to do. Draft statutory guidance on domestic abuse from the Home Office includes useful legal information and practical advice for employers, but there are no specific requirements on them in terms of HR policy.
Things are starting to change, however. Guidance published in September by the CIPD and the Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended that staff suffering domestic abuse should be given 10 days’ paid leave, calling on employers to take an “an empathetic, non-judgemental approach” and provide flexibility.
A small number of organisations has introduced policies along these lines, and more are beginning to follow suit.
How we did it
As a values-led charity rooted in social justice and fairness, we have taken this issue seriously. Some might wonder why a small organisation with a limited budget (and a one-woman HR team) has drawn up an exemplar policy when far bigger and better-resourced organisations in the private sector have failed to take the lead.
If you’ve made the assumption that our motive was heart rather than head, you’re not entirely right. It is true that we care deeply about the wellbeing of our fantastic employees, who are changing the lives of thousands of students from disadvantaged backgrounds each year thanks to our pioneering new Future Leaders programme.
But employers are also victims of domestic abuse. If an employee has to seek medical attention, or is struggling with mental health issues stemming from their home life, their work suffers.
The onus is on us to create a supportive, open culture in which we empower staff to speak openly about their problems. Our policy offers detailed guidance for line managers on how to help their direct reports negotiate difficult personal situations.
Another pragmatic reason why we produced this policy is that it is vital for us to attract and retain the best staff. We know from our work with young people around the country that, with the right support and coaching, students from disadvantaged backgrounds can go on to achieve great things.
We want to employ the best staff based on their abilities, not their circumstances. Life is complex; we would be short-sighted to limit ourselves to employees with straightforward home lives. With the right support and values in place, I want Villiers Park to be an organisation which empowers everyone to thrive, inside and outside the workplace. It’s the right thing to do, but it also makes sense from a business perspective.
While White Ribbon Day is about making a stand against violence towards women, men are by no means always the perpetrators. Villiers Park’s policy applies to our male employees just as much as their female colleagues. More than anything, I hope that this is a policy that none of our staff have use. But should it be needed, I hope that it will empower them to change their life for the better.