How firms can get involved in tackling domestic violence

Domestic violence (DV), along with its impact on workers and the firms that employ them, is a topic that people have become more aware of in recent years. Workers and Human Resources officers are right to wonder what role firms, if any, can play in these situations. Is this even a matter for them to deal with? Is it not a private matter?

Given the number of people affected by domestic violence (more than 50% of whom are actively employed) – along with the human, social and economic consequences it has companies do have a role to play. Yet, how they can take an effective stand against DV is not immediately clear.

In this article, we share the basics to help HR officers, managers and employees spot a colleague who may be suffering from domestic abuse, as well as how to (re)act to it. We will also delve into how you can get your company to raise awareness on this topic.

Signs to watch out for...

Although there are many mechanisms for coping with DV, depending on one's personality or life context, perpetrators' strategies often remain the same. These can trigger several types of behavioural, emotional and physical reactions. Observing them can provide useful clues to identify victims of domestic abuse.

A victim’s self-esteem may be damaged by the abuser’s relentless criticism and berating. In addition, psychological manipulation such as gaslighting, along with unclear and indirect communication, can lead to the victim feeling confused. It is also common to observe guilt and shame as the abuser places responsibility for the violence on the victim.

The insecurity that the victim is likely to feel along with the danger that they are in is likely to arouse fear and/or anxiety. This should send alarm bells ringing, as fear is what arises when one feels in danger. It is also possible to feel irritable, angry or emotionally overwhelmed. On the other hand, and this may seem paradoxical, some victims may not show any emotion at all, despite the seriousness of what they are going through. This suggests that the victim has withdrawn from their emotions and is probably in a state of psychic dissociation.

From a behavioural point of view, victims can be harassed by their abuser during work hours. For example, they – or even their colleagues – can receive barrages of calls or SMSs. In more extreme cases, the victim may even be detained against their will at home by their spouse and not be able to come to work. Conversely, to avoid violence at home, victims may come to work when this is not planned. Thus, higher than usual levels of absenteeism, remote working or presence at the workplace are strong signs that something maybe be wrong. Similarly, some employees may be socially isolated and never attend social events outside work hours. In some cases, their abuser picks them up from work every evening at a fixed time. Victims may also have difficulties concentrating, may show signs of forgetfulness and perhaps make mistakes regarding the time and location of appointments. All these are signs of psychic dissociation...

Of course, it goes without saying that the most visible signs of domestic violence are physical: cuts, bruises, wounds, blows...

How to react

As a witness

First, upon noticing just one symptom of what could be domestic abuse, one should not panic. It is the accumulation of symptoms, along with changes in a person's attitude, that are worrying. In general, any sudden change in an individual's behaviour should raise a red flag.

If this is the case, do not hesitate to go and see the person and ask them how they are doing. It is important to find a moment when the person is alone. Talk to them without asserting anything, simply based on your observations. For example, "I have the impression that you are not feeling well at the moment, though I have not mentioned this to anyone. Are you safe at home?" "If you need to talk about it, I am here for you.” "If you want to talk about it with the occupational health physician or the company doctor, I can accompany you... Don't hesitate to ask me.”

If a person confides in me

When a person confides in you that they are subject to domestic violence, it is important to listen to them with kindness and in a non-judgmental manner. The objective is to unravel the aggressor’s various strategies , breaking the victim’s cycle of isolation and by making them feel better and less guilty about themselves. For example, telling them "I believe you", "You did well to come and talk to me about it, it can't have been easy", "You are not alone, I will help you find solutions", "They have no right to do this to you, it is punishable by law" can go a long way.

It is also possible to introduce the possibility of raising the issue internally and/or externally. Within the company, there are people who can help victims adjust their working hours. More specifically, the occupational health physician, company social workers, the HR department, the manager, staff representatives or the sexual harassment prevention officer can all be helpful.

In addition, there are many external resources that provide support to victims of domestic violence. In France, the first step when in doubt about what to do is to call 3919 or contact the En Avant Toutes chat room. In case of grave and imminent danger, do not hesitate to contact the police directly on 17 and/or the SAMU on 15. In addition, other structures can help : the Centre Communal d'Action Sociale, the CIDFF (Centre d'Information sur les Droits des Femmes et des Familles), victims' aid charities...

It is important to maintain privacy, and therefore trust, whilst also encouraging the victim to open up to company professionals, who can provide help regarding adjustments to their daily work routine.

If you work for human resources, you can suggest adjustments to working conditions that can be of use to the employee and inform them of what can be done. For example, under French law, there exist specific provisions to help employees who are victims of domestic violence: the employee’s savings must be made immediately available, and once the victim has lodged a formal complaint, they are entitled to unemployment benefits even if they choose to resign. Their employer must also cooperate and help set up whatever protocol may be necessary should the victim have a protection order. Therefore, the employer will have to notify the authorities if the abuser tries to come to the victim’s workplace. The same applies if the perpetrator tries to contact the victim at work (via calls, e-mails, etc.).

If you are a manager and become aware of a situation of domestic violence, you can be proactive and offer the employee regular meetings. It is important to follow up once the person has come forward about their situation: they may not have the courage to revert to you for subsequent discussions. Moreover, do not attempt to deal with the situation by yourself: this is a difficult position, you must talk about it with your HR officers or the occupational health department.

Finally, it is important to stress that reporting a vulnerable adult (i.e. one who lacks the capacity to protect themselves) is a legal obligation. A person is typically considered vulnerable if, for example, they have a disability, are elderly, or pregnant.

If I am witness to any form of violence

When someone is a direct witness to any form of violence, regardless of their role or function in the company, they are, under French law, legally obliged to act.

First, it is important to stay safe and, depending on the gravity of the situation, to call the police (17) or contact them by SMS (114). Furthermore, in the event of a medical emergency, you can call the SAMU by dialling 15. In addition, unless it puts you in immediate danger, you can approach the victim to reassure and support them. Once they have been taken care of, it is necessary to inform Human Resources and managers of the serious event that has just occurred. It is relevant to give a written account of what you witnessed to support your employer's complaint.

If you work for human resources, you must file a complaint on behalf of your employer. The company will then be able to file a civil lawsuit to access the documents relating to the case, participate in hearings and provide the victim with support. In addition, it is necessary to file a work accident declaration if the victim has been physically assaulted. If other people have been affected (witnesses in particular), you can set up a crisis unit to support them.

When the victim returns to work - in addition to making sure that everything is fine - you can implement means to protect them and guarantee that they feel safe carrying out their role : by providing security, requesting additional police surveillance in the vicinity of the workplace, etc. Remember to keep the employees informed that such measures have been implemented.

If you are a manager, it is important to explain the facts to your team. It is not necessary to get into intimate or personal details, but it will help avoid rumours and maintain team cohesion. Next, it is important to explain what measures will be put in place to secure the workplace. This will reassure other colleagues. In addition, once the victim has returned to work, you can offer them time and space to discuss the incident, review the events, and adapt their work organisation. As you are not a healthcare professional, you can also suggest that they meet with the occupational health physician if this is not already the case.

Whatever your role in the company, it is quite likely and normal that this situation has affected you. You may feel shocked, sad or angry. Do not hesitate to contact the occupational health service, your GP or a psychologist to help you deal with your own emotions. You can also learn more about domestic violence by reading books, listening to certain podcasts or watching films that deal with this topic.

How to make my company an effective partner in tackling DV

First and foremost, it is important to establish a clear procedure for dealing with situations of domestic violence before such a situation arises. To do this, it is necessary to identify internally whom to contact regarding the subject (occupational physician, social workers, HR, etc.). You can also identify one or more prevention officers who know about this issue and able to take action. Furthermore, these can be discussed in company agreements and policy: dealing with domestic violence can be integrated in workplace gender equality policies. For example, a large French company agreed to provide three days' leave to victims of domestic violence upon filing a police complaint, for court appearances and for meetings with support charities.

On the other hand, for everyone to be an actor in the prevention and identification of violence, awareness-raising and training on this issue are necessary.

It is also possible to put in place HR procedures on the subject, and to think about specific actions to deal with domestic violence. For example, the company can introduce specific days off, adjust working hours, review the use of remote working for employees who are vulnerable at home as well as provide for internal geographical mobility after separation from a violent partner.

Furthermore, we know that people who experience violence are going to be vulnerable in the workplace, especially at the time of separation. To prepare for an eventual separation, victims can have a locker readily available with basic necessities (important documents, some clothes...) so that the person has access to their belongings if they need to leave the home urgently – or if they can’t return at short notice.

Finally, to be able to leave an abusive spouse, a new home, or access to a temporary shelter, is required. Companies can offer emergency accommodation, for example if they have established a partnership with Action logement. They can also offer financial assistance or establish partnerships with NGOs that deal with preventing domestic violence.

A company is not specifically designed to be a support structure for victims of DV, but it can still be a place that can provide guidance to victims. Domestic violence must be dealt with in a multidisciplinary manner, and each link in the chain will have its own role to play and its own limits. For its part, the company can offer the resources and time necessary to enable victims to leave their abuser and ensure a permanent separation from the violent spouse. Additional resources, therefore, in a process that can be fraught with difficulties...

If you are a victim or witness of domestic violence, you can contact 3919*.

If you or someone are in imminent danger, contact the police by dialling 17* or by contacting 114* by SMS.

*phone numbers available in France

Marie-Sixtine Bergeret

Clinical Psychologist and Consultant for EQUILIBRES