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Protecting people

By Lachlan Colquhoun

A workplace can offer practical – even life-saving – support to victims of domestic violence.

For Lisa McAdams, the workplace was not only her place of employment, it was her refuge. With an abusive partner at home, going to work for McAdams was a break from the relentless barrage of verbal and physical abuse she was suffering in her relationship.

“The workplace was where I could hold onto that part of me which was me, where I had self-worth and self- esteem,” she says.

“At home I was completely controlled. I couldn’t even open an electricity bill.

“But because I had my job and I was respected there and was good at what I did, it kept a lot of who I am alive and that eight hours at work helped me remember who I really was.”

Ultimately, McAdams gave up her job in corporate London and moved with her partner to Australia, where he had been offered a role. She herself had been offered a position in New York, but it was never considered that the couple would move for her career over that of her partner.

In Australia and without a job, the abuse continued. It reached a point where McAdams, then with two young children, arrived at breaking point and left the relationship, opting to start her life again – penniless – almost from scratch.

“It was just a given that we would follow his job and of course when we got to Australia I had no job,” says McAdams.

“It went downhill very quickly when I didn’t have my own finances coming in, it was horrific how quickly he had control.”

Cost of violence

From that traumatic experience, however, has come something positive. Today, more than ten years later, McAdams is a leader in domestic violence training, focused very specifically on helping the corporate world understand that it can play a critical role as part of the solution to this significant social issue.

As corporates embrace holistic human resource policies and practices, some are understanding that they can have an impact on domestic violence, which is estimated to have cost the Australian economy A$21.7b in 2015. The financial cost to business, through absenteeism and the loss of talent, was estimated at A$3.4b.

McAdams makes the point that, in her case as in so many others, there was a significant financial cost not just to her, but to the economy.

Instead of remaining employed and a taxpayer, she ended up in poverty and dependent on the welfare system to get by. She went from a taxpayer, to someone who “took money out rather than putting it in”.

“If you can keep victims viable then the outcomes for them, and everyone, are much better once they leave the relationship,” she says.

“And that goes for the corporate world, which loses talent, and the whole country.”

Business policy

In Australia, around 35% of businesses now have a domestic violence strategy or policy in place and it is increasingly recognised as an essential addition to the company’s suite of social policies.

“Workplaces can make a tremendous difference to people in domestic violence situations,” says McAdams. “I did eventually leave my job, but I don’t know if I would have done that if there had been the kind of support I am working on putting into corporates today.

“If that support had been there, I probably would have seen where I was at and chosen to go to New York without him. Instead, I followed him to Australia and eventually was pushed into poverty as a result of leaving.”

Assistance at work

A workplace, says McAdams, can do a number of constructive and practical things to assist people suffering from domestic violence.

Over and above providing paid leave in situations of domestic violence, corporates can provide resources to victims such as a dedicated office while they are on leave so they can arrange their affairs and make a smoother exit.

“They can provide a company phone which is not traceable, or a company laptop that the abuser is not going to see and which is not even going to go home,” says McAdams.

“Today, a lot of the abuse is facilitated by technology. Trackers are put on phones, computer history is examined, there are even hidden cameras at home. But if someone leaves as they normally do for work everyday, but is working on escaping while they are there, then this can be a tremendous help.”

Employers, says McAdams, can also help in developing a victim’s “safety plan”. This can involve creating a file where victims can store documents such as copies of passports, bank details and other documentation so they can be readily at hand when a victim, who is in extreme circumstances, needs to escape the abuse and create a new life.

EY’s approach

One corporate to have taken the lead in this area is big four accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has implemented a domestic violence policy in both Australia and New Zealand as part of a wide-ranging agenda around sustainability and inclusion.

EY country managing partner for NZ Simon O’Connor FCA says that the original impetus came out of discussions with officers from the NZ Ministry of Women’s Affairs. EY has strong links with the Ministry through its sponsorship of International Women’s Day.

O’Connor soon learned that his colleagues at EY in Australia were about to implement their own policy, and this was then adapted to fit the NZ legislative framework.

“Clearly the workplace can be a part of the solution and people affected by this problem don’t have that many release points or contacts outside of the difficult situation they are in,” he says.

“Also, while often the victims of abuse are not working themselves, it is possible that there may be abusers in the workplace.

“If an employer has a strong line and a strong policy on domestic violence, then that has the potential to make them think about their behaviour and make some changes.”

While O’Connor understands that such a policy is simply the right thing to do for a modern corporate, he also acknowledges the positive benefits for the business.

“I don’t think I have sent an email which has received such positive and heartfelt responses as the one I sent informing people of our domestic violence policy,” he says.

“The reality is that if people have a much better sense of belonging, and can bring their ‘well self’ to work then their work will be better, we will have higher retention of talent and it’s going to make a difference to a business in the long run.”

EY’s NZ policy rests within the Human Resources Department, but there is flexibility. While aspects of the policy, such as two weeks of additional annual leave, are managed in HR, victims are encouraged to approach whoever they feel most comfortable confiding in, be that an HR manager, a line manager or a colleague.

Trust and support

In the case of McAdams, a senior manager in her UK workplace who she confided in offered significant support.

This extended from allowing her to work from home, taking meetings in her stead, to more domestic assistance such as finding a house to rent and picking up furniture.

A downside to this was that, because the company had no formal policy, and no-one else in the organisation knew about the abuse, McAdams was seen to be enjoying “special treatment” from managers.

“With time I understood that involving her in my issues had taken a toll on her too,” says McAdams.

“Once I changed a meeting and when I saw her she was very anxious and asked me where I had been.

“There was nothing wrong on that particular occasion, but I understand now that my situation was also having an impact on her and must have been horrific, so these people also need to be supported.”

For McAdams, these events happened more than a decade ago.

When she returned to her relationship after a brief separation, the situation with the manager who had helped her became awkward, to the extent that they avoided each other when they crossed paths and rarely spoke.

Recently, McAdams tracked this person down in the UK and called her to thank her, and to explain what had happened to her since that time.

“She told me that it didn’t cross her mind that I was still alive,” she says.

“That is what I had left her with for more than a decade. But the reality is that this person probably saved my life because she was the only person I felt able to confide in, and she was in my workplace.”

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of acuity.