LawTalk Blog

Domestic violence – does the workplace have a role?

Domestic violence and the workplace

In April 2016 I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by an inspirational woman named Stacey.  Stacey is a victim of domestic violence, and her courageous story shed light on the horrors of domestic violence not only at home, but in the workplace.

It is easy to dismiss domestic violence as a matter that only impacts people in their personal life, but it is apparent that it can also have a significant deleterious impact on a victim’s employment, and the impact of domestic violence on the workplace cannot be ignored.

Domestic violence does not just involve physical attacks on a family member (most often a male partner inflicting violence on their female spouse or children); but rather domestic violence involves a whole range of coercive tactics aimed at controlling and intimidating the victim.  Some of these tactics include financial control, emotional blackmail and control of the victim’s interaction with friends and family (even their own children).

"Statistics show that at least one woman is murdered in Australia every week and one child murdered every fortnight due to domestic violence."

It wasn’t too long ago that domestic violence was simply considered a personal or private issue where even police would treat violence at home less seriously than violence in the community.  To their credit, the attitude of police has significantly changed and now domestic violence is treated very seriously.  It is becoming more and more apparent that domestic violence is not a private issue that stays at home; rather it comes to work.

Domestic violence is much more common than we might think.  Statistics show that at least one woman is murdered in Australia every week and one child murdered every fortnight due to domestic violence.

Women often miscarry their unborn babies due to domestic violence and domestic violence is a larger cause of miscarriage and still birth compared with pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes.  One woman is hospitalised every three hours and approximately ¾ of a million women are affected by domestic violence annually.

These statistics show that many colleagues and friends may be victims, but we are ignorant to their silent suffering.  In addition, domestic violence is one of the biggest causes of homelessness in Australia, and overall domestic violence costs the nation around $21 billion annually.

It is easy to simply ask “why doesn’t the victim just leave the abuse relationship?”.  I admittedly have thought like this in the past, but there are many barriers to leaving and even if a victim does leave, evidence shows that violence often continues after the end of an abusive relationship.  Around 30% of domestic violence related murders occurred after the abusive relationship ended.  Often barriers to leaving include:

  • Homelessness and lack of emergency housing;
  • Risk of escalating violence;
  • The victim is often blamed by family and friends;
  • Love of the violent partner and ongoing hope that the violence will end.

So how is domestic violence a workplace issue?

Victims often rely on work as a sanctuary away from the violent home environment.  But more often than not, the abuse doesn’t leave the victim alone at work.  Their intimidation continues with constant emails and phone calls, and even personally attending the workplace to show that they have control over the victim.

There are examples of women losing their job because management became fed up with the abusive partner constantly attending the workplace and causing trouble.

Even if there is an intervention order against the abuser, it is difficult to enforce that order at work.  Victims often do not want their employer and colleagues to know about the domestic violence at home and victims often go to great lengths to keep their abuse a secret at work.

Victims can feel ashamed about their personal situation, particularly if the abuse starts adversely impacting the quality of their work.  Victims also fear losing their jobs if the abuse is discovered.  The physical signs of domestic violence are not always apparent, and abusers tend to inflict violence on parts of the body that can be covered by clothing.

Victims of domestic violence abuse often report that their work suffered during the abusive relationship.  For example, they were often late for work due to domestic issues in the morning and constant worry about the children; automatically they tended to use more personal leave.  Victims often struggled to meet their workloads and were regularly distracted by their abusive partner during the course of their work day.  Even if there is no contact by the abuser during the day, victims have reported an ongoing fear about the violence they will experience when they return home.

"In a recent case, both the victim and abuser were both working in the same workplace, even with an intervention order in place.  However the employer considered this an inconvenience and asked the victim to tender her resignation."

Courts, Tribunals and the law have started recognising domestic violence as a workplace issue.  The Work Health & Safety laws require employers to look out for the physical and mental health of their employees, so if domestic violence infiltrates their workplace, it is arguable that a positive onus is now placed on the employer to combat the problem.

In a recent case, both the victim and abuser were both working in the same workplace, even with an intervention order in place.  However the employer considered this an inconvenience and asked the victim to tender her resignation.  The Commission awarded her the maximum compensation for the employer’s unreasonable and callous conduct.

So what can employers and workers do to recognise and tackle domestic violence as a workplace issue?

  1. Employers can raise domestic violence as a workplace issue with staff;
  2. Implement a workplace domestic violence policy;
  3. Allow flexible start and finish times for victims of domestic violence;
  4. Implement a safety plan with the victim;
  5. Block calls and emails from the abuser and monitor emails in extreme cases;
  6. Provide reception/front of house with a photo of the abuser to prevent their personal attendance at work;
  7. Insert specific domestic violence clauses into enterprise agreements;
  8. Provide a safe and secure car park to victims of domestic violence.

Overall, employers should provide a safe and supportive work environment and recognise that domestic violence can and does, impact on the workplace.  Managers shouldn’t be expected to be domestic violence counsellors but should provide the requisite support to their workers and possibly even direct workers to help elsewhere; for example the helpline 1800RESPECT.

Workplaces should proactively support organisations and events like White Ribbon Day.

South Australians should feel proud that our Premier, Jay Weatherill, is a strong advocate for domestic violence prevention and he has directed government agencies to undertake domestic violence programs and training.  South Australia is also fortunate enough to have a wonderful organisation that supports women in the workplace who are victims of domestic violence; The Working Women’s Centre.  But it is a travesty that the WWC may lose federal funding if the Coalition Government has its way.

If you are experiencing problems in the workplace or if you feel your employer has not been supportive of your personal situation, please contact today’s blog writer, Michael Irvine, a strong advocate of workers’ rights and human rights.

Please note, this Blog is posted in Adelaide, South Australia by Andersons Solicitors. It relates to Australian Federal and South Australian legislation. Andersons Solicitors is a medium sized law firm servicing metropolitan Adelaide and regional South Australia across all areas of law for individuals and businesses.

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