Facing Up to the Realities of Domestic and Family Violence in the Workplace

Lisa Annese, DCA's CEO
Opinion pieces
Lisa Annese

Many members of the not-for-profit sector will be acutely aware of the problem of domestic and family violence in Australia; it has major societal impacts which the welfare sector is frequently called upon to address. However, this problem at home is also undeniably a problem for the workplace.

Of the 1.4 million Australian women who are living in an abusive relationship, or have been so in the past, about 800,000 are in the paid workforce and although precise data is not available, the vast majority of perpetrators are probably also employed in some capacity.

Corporate Australia must be educated and encouraged to face up to the realities of domestic and family violence. Not only is there a moral imperative for them to take action to overcome this crisis, there are also financial incentives. KPMG estimate that by 2021 domestic and family violence will cost Australian businesses $609 million annually.

Absenteeism is possibly the most obvious evidence of how domestic violence impacts the workplace, but most victims of this abuse experience feelings of anxiety and distraction which can affect productivity and performance. Economic security is the single most important factor in whether a victim of domestic violence is able to withdraw from a dangerous situation. So it is vital that allowances are made by employers. To suspend or terminate someone due to unreliability related to domestic violence, is to victimise these employees further. Allowing flexible work arrangements is ideal in these circumstances.

It is pleasing to note that over the last five years many companies have introduced the option of domestic violence leave, but simply announcing that such paid leave is available is not enough. Detailed policies and implementation programs are needed if this is to really make a difference.

The recent Male Champions of Change report, Playing our Part: Lessons Learned from Implementing Workplace Responses to Domestic and Family Violence, stressed that such leave should be easily accessible and that employees should feel supported in accessing it and not required to provide onerous proof. Sensitivity in handling these matters is essential and confidentiality must be assured.

But what about the source of the problem? Environments where gender inequality and the perpetuation of gender stereotypes go unchecked contribute to the problem of violence against women. Workplaces must therefore lead by example and embody policies that encourage respect for all and do not tolerate prejudice based on gender or indeed race, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability.

It is naïve to think that someone’s violent behaviour and attitudes only emerge at home. Workplace Codes of Conduct should outline how bullying, harassment and physical violence will not be tolerated. Furthermore, using work time and resources to engage in violent, threatening or abusive behaviour must not go unchecked. Domestic violence is a crime and there may be times when the police must be called upon, but at the same time establishing referral pathways for perpetrators is also important.

Telstra’s latest domestic violence policy, as described by the Male Champions of Change, includes guidance for managers about perpetrators. Following advice from subject matter experts who work in the Family and Domestic Violence sector, Telstra managers are encouraged to support perpetrators in being held accountable for their actions (eg to attend court or behaviour change programs).

Workplaces can and will make a difference on many levels if they face up to their responsibilities in the quest to reduce the prevalence and impact of family and domestic violence.

This article was first published in ProBono Australia News.

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