31/07/2017 10:05 PM AEST | Updated 31/07/2017 10:05 PM AEST

Workplace Domestic Violence Programs Crucial In Addressing Scourge

Bosses and colleagues have a role to play in supporting victims.


Domestic violence is often hidden in the privacy of the family home, but workplaces can be a key part of addressing issues, resolving distress and keeping victims safe from further harm.

One in four Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner, according to Our Watch. Women are more than three times as likely to experience domestic violence than a man, and five times more likely to require medical help from domestic violence. Of those who experience violence, more than half have children in their care. Destroy The Joint's 'Counting Dead Women' project say 25 women have already been killed by family violence in Australia in 2017. These factors make domestic and family violence not just a law enforcement and medical problem, but also a workplace and industrial relations issue.

How does a victim explain their circumstances to their boss if they need time off to deal with injuries, court dates, moving house to escape a violent situation, or having to vary their work hours to care for their children? Should an employee be forced to take annual leave, or sick leave, or unpaid leave? What happens if an abusive partner turns up at work, or begins harassing the victim via work phones or email addresses? What sort of policies should be in place for bosses to handle employees who are experiencing violence, and may be forced into unpredictable stints away from work? These are the sorts of questions Karen Willis, from the Full Stop Foundation, helps employers and workplaces to answer.

"Currently at the moment, the statistics are that at least 1.8 million women are in workplaces and experiencing domestic violence," Willis told HuffPost Australia.

"By being part of the solution, you're helping them escape, and if you help someone to safety, they're going to be a loyal employee for a long time. But it's also just the ethical thing to do."

Full Stop is part of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia. Part of their offering includes running training workshops with businesses to educate employees about domestic violence, helping to change behaviours and teach attendees how to recognise, respond and support colleagues or others experiencing problems. Full Stop also works with employers to help shape workplace policies to better support employees experiencing domestic violence.

"Violence can have a range of impacts from needing to take sick leave because someone was abused overnight, or they need to take their children to safety, go to court or move house. What can happen is an employee can appear to be unreliable or a problem, the employer might say she is too much trouble and sack her," Willis said.

Offering domestic violence leave -- a specific category of leave victims can use instead of having to use their sick or annual leave -- is one idea Willis says employers can easily implement to support their workers. The Australian Council of Trade Unions reports around one million workers are covered by such schemes in this country, but domestic violence leave is not yet a standard working condition and is only offered voluntarily by some employers. It does, however, seem to be on the way -- in a review of workplace awards earlier this month, the Fair Work Commission rejected a union push for 10 days paid domestic violence leave but announced a "preliminary view" was "necessary" for 10 days of unpaid leave to be inserted into modern awards as a mandatory entitlement.

Big employers like Telstra, Qantas and and NAB and Commonwealth banks are among those to offer domestic violence leave to their employees. Telstra's general manager of diversity Troy Roderick told HuffPost Australia last November that the policy had worked well.

"When you think about the prevalence of domestic violence, and since we have quite a large workforce, it stood to reason that there would be people among our colleagues experiencing that. We wanted people to be able to feel safe at work even when things weren't going well at home, so they didn't have to worry about their employment and could take time to deal with things happening at home," he said last year.

"Our policy says a manager may ask for evidence but I don't know of any cases where a manager has done that. We trust our people. Some commentators say people would exploit this, but why would somebody make this up? Why would they do that? When you trust your people, it all works."

Full Stop said they encouraged employers to offer 10 days paid domestic violence leave.

"Not all can do that, but I've been wildly surprised about how many have agreed to do that. Other ideas can include flexible pay arrangements or no interest loans. Instead of putting their wage into a bank account which the offender is checking, putting it into another account," Willis said.

Other policies could include changing an employee's working hours or schedule so their abuser can't follow their routine, changing workplace location or floor in the office building, monitoring emails and phone so victims can't be harassed at work, or offering extra security arrangements at the workplace.

"It's not hard stuff. These are some general principles, but you can tailor it to your workplace," Willis said.

She said being able to keep a job through a domestic violence situation was important from both a logistical standpoint and an emotional one.

"When escaping violence, having a job is a massive advantage. There's an income, and a bank account makes a massive difference in what your options and choices are. But there's also a part of your life where you're treated with respect for your skills and abilities. The rest of their life is filled with ridicule, undermining, poor treatment," Willis said.