The new law providing assistance to domestic violence victims at work comes into force on April 1.

Don’t be the employer that asks for proof of domestic violence

A new law makes domestic violence a workplace issue but does not spell out how businesses should respond, and even allows the employer to seek proof, writes Shine’s Holly Carrington.

Within a few months of moving in together, Carol’s love for her boyfriend had turned to fear and she stopped blaming herself for the violence. Her boyfriend never held a job and he monitored her every move. His extreme jealousy fuelled violent rages – he had strangled her, hit and kicked her, cut her with a knife and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him.

She wanted out, but simply could not figure out how to leave safely. She was fairly new to the city and had no close friends or family nearby. He often made her late to work, and rang and texted constantly. Her work phone and laptop were broken or went missing when she brought them home. After four months in her first job, she was fired.

Several months into her next job, her boss called her in to talk about her performance. Carol took a chance and told him a bit about her situation, leaving out the worst violence. He was shocked and totally unprepared, and suggested she go to EAP counselling.  Carol knew EAP wouldn’t help her leave her boyfriend safely. She was ashamed and embarrassed that she’d told her boss about the abuse and scared her boyfriend might find out. So she didn’t come back the next day.

She found a new job working alone in a small branch office. Her boyfriend parked outside every day, and came inside to verbally or physically abuse her when no one else was around. Carol began to ring the Shine Helpline for support while at work. Eventually, she rang the police after her boyfriend brutally assaulted her then fell asleep in his car. He was arrested, and Shine supported her through court proceedings and to move on with her life, but she continued to suffer PTSD and chronic pain from her injuries.

The Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Act (DVVPA) comes into force today, and has made clear to many employers that domestic violence is a workplace issue. The Act requires some basic workplace supports for employees who experience domestic violence.

One in three Kiwi women are physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner or ex-partner in their lifetime. Rates are similar or higher in the LGBTQI community than among heterosexual couples. In New Zealand, domestic violence happens across socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds.

Domestic violence doesn’t stay at home. Most victims who are employed say the abuse follows them to work, most commonly in the form of stalking and monitoring their behaviour – phone calls, texts, and emails, which are sometimes threatening and often distracting and upsetting. They are also often depressed or anxious. Hence, domestic violence nearly always affects their productivity.

But domestic violence is often invisible in the workplace until victims feel reassured that it is safe—and worthwhile—to disclose. So it’s easy for employers to believe it doesn’t happen ‘in my business’ or ‘in this sector’.

The DVVPA legislates key provisions for employees who experience domestic violence, including paid domestic violence leave and short term flexible work arrangements, and makes clear that employers may not discriminate against potential employees on the basis of being affected or victimised by domestic violence.

But the new law does not require a safe and effective response from employers, and does not specifically require protection in the workplace for these employees.

Possibly the most important thing an employer can do is to appoint the right people as ‘first responders’, and provide these people with specialist training. The second important step to take is to make sure that all staff know they can go to one of these people for help and support if they are experiencing domestic violence.

Many employers have been picking up on this idea, and the demand for DVFREE First Responder training has soared over the last year. Since 2001, DVFREE has supported employers to make workplaces safe havens for victims and to be better prepared for managing staff who perpetrate domestic violence.

Until recently DVFREE First Responder training was only available to groups of staff trained at their employer’s venue. Shine has recently begun offering these workshops in Auckland and Wellington (and soon in Christchurch) that individuals, or groups of up to four people from one employer, can register to attend.

There are a number of further key steps employers can and should take to ensure an effective workplace response to domestic violence. Based on Shine’s experience supporting thousands of victims and helping employers in this space, Shine developed DVFREE Guidelines on Policy & Procedures to provide this guidance for employers. The guidelines are free to download and contain a number of essential recommendations and additional suggestions in the areas of policy, procedures, training for first responders and managers, and awareness raising for all staff.

Minimally, employers should ensure that staff know how access support from domestic violence specialists in the community. The Shine Helpline (0508-744-633) is a toll-free number answered 7 days a week. It is  staffed by specialists who provide emotional support, information, help with risk assessment and safety planning, and referrals to any local services that are needed.

The helpline can also be a resource for managers and others who need support or guidance to help a colleague or someone they know.

For employers that want to provide the best possible support for their people, Shine provides the DVFREE Tick workplace accreditation. To date, employers awarded the DVFREE Tick include Westpac, the Ministry of Justice, Parliamentary Service and Stuff, with a further twenty employers working towards their accreditation.

For employers whose immediate priority is meeting new legislative requirements, you need to know that the new DVVPA allows employees to access up to ten days’ paid domestic violence leave annually and short term flexible work arrangements.

The law says employees must apply in writing and employers must respond within ten days. Shine recommends that employees be able to talk to a first responder or manager who can make the application on their behalf, without any requirement to put their reasons in writing – a terrifying prospect for many victims. And we recommend employers respond to such requests within two working days or sooner, depending on the urgency of the request.

The law also allows employers to require ‘proof’ of the domestic violence before responding to such requests. Shine strongly urges employers to NOT require such proof. This is akin to telling an employee experiencing domestic violence that ‘we will not believe you’, and will stop people from requesting this support.

Many employees like Carol do not have proof beyond their own word. They have never had police involvement, never disclosed the abuse to their GP, or – like Carol – never explained the true cause of their injuries to medical professionals.

A number of large employers like Westpac and Stuff have been offering paid domestic violence leave without requiring proof for a couple of years or more. These employers vouch that the uptake is low, generally in increments of hours or 1-2 days, with no suspected or known instances of employees lying about their situation to access this leave. In fact, it is exceedingly rare for people to lie about domestic violence – probably about as rare as people lying about having cancer.

In one New Zealand study that interviewed women who had experienced domestic violence, 75 percent said they told someone they knew about the abuse, and 40 percent of those women said that after telling someone, nobody helped them.

Ensure that your workplace is somewhere people can talk about domestic violence and get the help they need. Contact us today to find out more at dvfree@2shine.org.nz. Shine also offers a free online workplace learning module created in partnership with Westpac several years ago.

Holly Carrington is Shine’s DVFREE & Policy Advisor.


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