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Industry Focus

Why Minding Your Own Business Is Never Good for Business

Home, as the saying goes, may be “where the heart is,” but if official figures are anything to go by, it may also be “where the hurt is” as domestic abuse cases sharply increased due to the global pandemic and the consequential work-from-home rules that meant vulnerable people became trapped in the very environments where they felt least safe.    

Affecting one in four women and one in six men under sixty—the figure is much higher when those of pensionable age are factored in—domestic abuse is more common than most people would realise, but it came into sharper focus during the last two years.

Stark figures began to circulate early in the lockdown, perhaps as a result of increased reporting from concerned neighbours or work mates dialling into endless Teams or Zoom calls where previously outgoing colleagues seemed more withdrawn, introverted, or simply digitally absent from scheduled catch-up meetings.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men had experienced domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020, with a 7 per cent growth in Police-recorded domestic abuse crime. 

Although there is limited official data on the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that in mid-May 2020, there was a 12 per cent increase in the number of domestic abuse cases referred to Victim Support while, at the same time, a 65 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline was recorded, compared to the first three months of that year.

Calls to the Metropolitan Police (Met) also increased during this time but, according to the ONS, were mainly from third parties rather than the victims themselves. 

Emerging evidence shows a change in those who perpetrate abuse. Between April and June 2020, there was an 8.1 per cent increase in abuse from current partners, a 17.1 per cent increase from family members, and a decline of 11.4 per cent in abuse perpetrated by former partners, according to a study from LSE London in collaboration with the Met.

A Problem That’s “Entrenched and Enduring”

The pandemic has shone a light on this most serious and taboo topic with a general realisation from the business community that, in terms of both the employer’s duty of care and the growing issues of colleague well-being, it is no longer OK to ‘mind your own business’ in cases of suspicious or out-of-character behaviour. In fact, probing beyond the “Is everything OK?” question is not only good for business, but may even help save a life.

According to the body representing chief constables, the number of women dying as a result of domestic abuse remains an “entrenched and enduring problem” which could result in more killings following the end of the coronavirus restrictions.

The alert came in a report published this spring by the National Police Chiefs’ Council which reveals that 163 people died in domestic abuse attacks during the twelve months ending March of this year when lockdown and other controls were still in place.

The report, which discloses that a further thirty-eight people with a history of domestic abuse took their own lives during the same period, says the toll was up on the 152 recorded in the year before the pandemic took hold but concedes that it represents “a continuing situation where between two and three women are murdered every week by their partners or ex-partners, which is unacceptable.”

The Government currently defines domestic abuse as “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence, or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. It can encompass, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse.”

The Domestic Abuse Act, which came onto the statute book in 2021, introduced the legal definition of what constitutes the offence. This includes economic abuse, and for the first time enshrines in law clarification that a person cannot consent to actual bodily harm, more serious injury, or, by extension, their death for the purposes of sexual gratification, which represents the abolition of the so-called “rough sex” defence.

Impact on Productivity and, Possibly, Reputation

Whatever its legal definition, domestic abuse is very common. Apart from the one in four women and one in six men experiencing at least one incident in their lifetime, it is likely that members of most workforces will have some experience of what is often referred to as the “taboo crime hidden in plain sight.”

This is why lawyers and HR specialists accept that there is a clear moral obligation on employers to not only support victims or survivors, but also deal with perpetrators in their workforce. They furthermore argue beyond the moral obligation to act that there are sound commercial reasons why all employers should take steps.

The impact on performance is one key reason. Victims may often experience depression, sleep deprivation, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, or actual physical pain because of the abuse they face on a daily basis. 

Figures on actual losses differ. According to research by KPMG for Vodafone, around £316 million in economic output is lost by UK businesses each year as a result of absences related to domestic abuse. 

But other figures suggest the figure could run into billions of pounds when “presenteeism”—being physically at work, but not operating at full potential—and consequently reduced productivity and lost output is added to the mix. 

According to Jackie Dadd of JDCG Ltd., a consultancy dealing with domestic abuse that specialises in carrying out multi-agency Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHR), the pre-pandemic figure represented £9 billion in lost productivity, but that figure has now skyrocketed to £14 billion as a result of lockdown.

A former Bedfordshire Police officer who was the force’s lead on stalking, harassment, and domestic abuse, Jackie said, “It is a difficult and emotional subject, but for businesses to take notice you have to put it into terms of transactional language that they will understand, whether it is the commercial impact of the loss of productivity or the reputational hit if, for example, it comes out in a DHR that the business had become aware of the issues and had not offered support in the run-up to the death, whether it is a murder or a suicide as a result of domestic abuse.”

Indeed, the far-reaching probe of a DHR not only highlights the name of the business the victim worked for at the time of death, but also exposes what, if any, policies and training awareness were in place to tackle domestic abuse.

“A lot of companies have been investing in mental well-being because of the anxiety generated from the pandemic, but they are not necessarily looking at domestic abuse as the cause of the problem. All the mental health first aiders in the world are not going to help a firm if they have not addressed this particular elephant in the room,” she said.

“Also, during the pandemic, there was lots of health and safety advice about avoiding bad backs and posture issues as a result of having to work from your kitchen table, but there was precious little in terms of domestic abuse and whether you were actually safe in your own home.”  

Jackie accepts that it is a challenge for businesses, particularly when figures suggest that a survivor may suffer between thirty or forty attacks before mentioning or reporting the abuse, but many businesses are now signposting assistance as part of their colleague support packages and risk strategies.

Impact on Retail

There have been very high-profile cases in retail including the 2005 murder of a cosmetics assistant at a leading London flagship department store who was shot at work by her former security guard ex-boyfriend, who had been stalking her. In another case, a hairdresser was stabbed to death by her abusive partner in front of colleagues and customers in a busy salon.

But businesses are stepping up to the challenge. The Co-op, for example, has produced a domestic abuse policy that is translated into five languages, to provide a structure and make clear how the business approaches the issue. It has also developed a managers’ guide to assist at a local store level and has distributed posters across the business which signposts people to Hestia’s Bright Sky app, an easy-to-use tool and website that provides practical support and information on how to respond to reports of domestic abuse. It also helps users identify tell-tale signs as well as providing practical advice on how to respond and provide assistance to survivors on how to find a safe route to the support they need. 

Helen Webb, the Co-op’s chief people and services director, also sits on the board of EIDA (Employer’s Initiative on Domestic Abuse), a growing network of large and small businesses tasked with taking action on domestic abuse through raising awareness among all employees, as well as supporting those facing domestic abuse and providing access to services to help perpetrators stop.

April this year saw the launch of National Stalking Awareness Week and Sussex Police, under the stewardship of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Katy Bourne OBE, a leading exponent of policies that tackle violence against women and girls, used the platform to launch the Safe Spaces Sussex App following detailed consultation with partners and the public regarding the safety of women and girls in the county. The campaign hopes to attract a number of national retailers and hospitality providers in Sussex to offer temporary safe places for those who feel vulnerable or believe they are being followed or stalked while out and about.

Katy, a former businesswoman and the Association of PCC’s lead on business and retail crime, has first-hand experience of the issues as she has been personally targeted with death and rape threats by misogynistic internet trolls. Her office is now also rolling out its Do the Right Thing campaign, a programme calling out sexist and racist hate crime that is also to be extended nationally.

Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Rayland, Sussex Constabulary’s lead on public protection, was recognised with the Queen’s Police Medal in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for his focus on domestic abuse and violence against women and girls, an example that other forces are also following.

It could be argued that while domestic abuse is becoming a normalised part of the risk narrative as a result of such proactive measures, it has taken a pandemic and the bravery of survivors and some early-adopter businesses to raise the subject on the corporate agenda.

Fiona Bowman’s Harrowing Odyssey

The story of what happened to facilities management consultant Fiona Bowman is a salutary tale of a woman who stepped back from the abyss and reclaimed her life after eleven years of under-the-radar abuse. However, this was only after the intervention of her then employer who literally spirited her away from her toxic domestic situation in Scotland to a new life and job in London, where she could not be reached by her controlling husband.

Fiona, who has worked as a facilities manager at some of the UK’s most iconic buildings including Lloyds of London, where she was in charge of 170 staff, owes her life to the HR director who correctly read the unwritten and unspoken signs.

“I have never really been able to thank that person at Standard Chartered Bank who asked me the question beyond, ‘Are you really OK?’ They said at the time, ‘I know you are not ready to talk to me now, but here is my business card for when you are ready,’” she recalled.

“I didn’t follow up immediately, but it was the sudden realisation that the next time I got hit could be the last, so I finally reached out. This decision allowed me to move quickly 400 miles from Edinburgh to London in just the clothes I stood up in – but I never looked back.

“He kept coming to my workplace to find out where I was, but no one told him about what had happened.

“I know now that 90 per cent of all domestic murders happen after the relationship ends, and I know he would have killed me,” said Fiona who, since leaving Scotland for life in an East End bedsit, has had no fewer than thirty-seven jobs.

“As a result of what happened to me, I couldn’t stand to be around conflict situations, so I simply kept moving,” she said.

Now an inspirational speaker, author, and mentor for those looking to reclaim their lives after domestic abuse, Fiona’s story, which she first revealed as a form of therapy to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, could have ended very differently. Married to Derek at just 17 years old, early signs of mental control and coercion—not wanting her to speak to male colleagues at work and even hiding her keys so she would be late for work—soon manifested themselves as the early red flags in their relationship.

Even on her wedding day, her father had said before walking down the aisle that she did not have to go through with it if she felt uncertain, but she over-ruled him and went through with the marriage.

“Everyone else thought he was charming as he did not display those characteristics when we were in company,” she said.

Having lost her confidence and self-esteem, cries for help to her controlling mother went unheard, even when she ended up in hospital following one of the many physical beatings.

“She made me go back to him because marriage was meant for life and her brother, my uncle, was a minister in the Church of Scotland, who had performed our marriage ceremony. She just wanted us to be reconciled all of the time,” said Fiona who was beaten so ferociously that she still has a titanium “breathe strip” inside her nose, which had been broken so many times.

Such deep physical and psychological scars take a lifetime to heal and even in separation from her first husband, it took her more than a decade to revisit Scotland.

“I was in Edinburgh on business in 2017, and I plucked up the courage to drive to the street where we lived. I ended up talking to the same postman and learned that he had moved away after the rent had not been paid. I later learned that he had died, and I got the death certificate. I had spent many years looking over my shoulder when latterly I need not have worried, but I am now relieved that he cannot hurt me or anyone else anymore. I am now at peace.” 

Now remarried and living in north Yorkshire, she understands the long-term, almost PTSD impact of what she went through.

“My new husband said to me from the beginning: ‘I’m not Derek.’ He’s sometimes had it rough because of my reaction to things that happened to me.”

As an ambassador for EIDA, Fiona now works with businesses to support their own domestic abuse strategy development as well as providing training to Police forces, steps she could not have dreamed of a few years ago.

“It was only when I was general manager of Lloyds of London in the city, managing 170 staff, that I felt comfortable disclosing my abuse. I could not have spoken to senior managers about these things as I believed people would somehow perceive me as weak and unable to take on senior roles. 

“Since lockdown, I’ve done something like forty webinars in the last eighteen months looking at the different dynamics of domestic abuse. It’s not just about men beating women; it could be same-sex abusive partners or in some cases parents terrified of their 16-year-old son, or, in some cultures, honour killing. We have to open up the discussion and look at all the different dynamics at play here.”

Other warning signs have come to the fore during lockdown, such as people wearing long-sleeved tops during hot weather to hide bruising, or not using the camera function during Teams or Zoom calls, or even incidents where a controlling partner has damaged a number of laptops in the home.

“Some perpetrators will do this because they think it will get them into trouble with their employers, possibly lose their job, and then the perpetrator will have them at home and even more under their control,” explained Fiona.

“Domestic abuse policies are so important because so many people park it away for many years. I had one experience with a very entrepreneurial CEO who got me to come in to discuss the issue. He said to me later that he could not believe the response as five members of his team had approached him afterwards to open up about their own experiences.  

“All of this matters because early interventions can save lives as well as limited Police resources. It costs £1.25 million to investigate an average homicide that could have been avoided in the first instance,” she added. 

A Culture of Openness

When it comes to domestic abuse, a strategy of minding your own business is not a sustainable plan, and it is certainly not good for your own business.

Indeed, an employer that fosters a culture of openness, commits to protecting workers from all forms of abuse, and seeks to support victims is likely to be well placed to recruit and retain high-performing employees.

There is much legal advice to support business teams in this delicate and sensitive field. All would suggest that domestic abuse policies should be tailored to the business and inform staff what they can expect from the employer if they disclose what is happening to them. It should also confirm that disclosures will be treated in confidence, except where there is a risk of harm to a child, vulnerable adult, or staff member. According to employment lawyers, the strategy should be reviewed against other relevant policies, including the disciplinary protocols and code of conduct, to ensure they are consistent.

Developing a domestic abuse strategy is not the sole preserve of the HR team, many of whose members may not have the confidence or experience to do this alone. It is instead the responsibility of the board of directors or senior management team to ensure that processes exist within the business to seek out survivors and perpetrators by identifying the early signs and red flags. Businesses that make the safety of their colleagues a priority by engaging with dedicated support agencies as well as providing training will help ensure any policy is inclusive and informed by experts. It will prove once and for all that they are in the business of not minding their own business, but that of the overall safety and well-being of their colleagues.

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