Tackling domestic abuse – an employer steps up

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure is blazing the trail as a responsible employer. Its approach to tackling domestic abuse sets a new benchmark for organisations worldwide.

Hand close to camera in stop hand signal to illustrate domestic abuse


It’s a depressing fact that domestic abuse rates rocketed during the Covid pandemic, with people more likely to be confined to their homes, with little contact with the outside world.

Yet an encouraging development is that employers now increasingly accept responsibility for supporting employees in abusive situations.

One such employer is construction firm Morgan Sindall Infrastructure, which has recently rolled out an innovative domestic abuse employee support programme.

Tackling abuse through awareness and company policy

Domestic abuse is an issue HR Director Katie Smith feels passionately about. She approached Learning and Development Partner Sarah Haywood to scope out a new company policy.

For Sarah it was “an incredible honour” to be part of the conversations and the ensuing “rollercoaster of emotions and insights.”

Katie says it took time to get it right because of the very sensitive nature of the issue: “There were many head-in-hand moments, particularly when it came to policies related to perpetrators,” she said. “We wanted to get it right and partner with the right people. I am exceptionally proud of what Sarah and the team have achieved. They have put a lot of effort and emotion into lifting the lid on this subject.”

Getting leadership buy-in

Sarah began by looking at the role Morgan Sindall Infrastructure might play in addressing domestic violence situations, how it could help and what a policy might look like. A key step was to crystallise why Morgan Sindall Infrastructure should take action, and present this to the senior management team.

Her case explored how many women and men in the company were likely to be affected by domestic violence, based on national statistics. The 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men aged 16 to 74 years had experienced domestic abuse in the previous year. Following these figures, she calculated that up to 600 people at Morgan Sindall Infrastructure might be facing abusive situations at home.

Katie says: “This is about being responsible and, above all, about helping individuals. But there is also a business benefit in terms of the staggering amount of working time lost due to domestic abuse.”

Scoping out a policy

Having gained the backing of senior management, Sarah looked at how employers can protect their employees beyond the working environment. She focused on four areas: policy; education and communication [lifting taboos]; practical support and partnerships with experts.

Helping to address both policy and partnership, Sarah set out for the company to become a member of the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse [EIDA]. Not only that, Morgan Sindall Infrastructure would also encourage other employers to join, in support not just of victims but also perpetrators. A further key partnership was the charity Hestia.

Driving awareness

Hestia’s free Bright Sky app directs people experiencing domestic abuse – or concerned friends and family – to local and other support. The app was made available for employees to download on their phones, with an awareness campaign to drive take-up.

HR business partners were trained by Hestia to spot the signs of domestic violence. Sarah says that the training alerted her to check in on someone who she suspected may be the victim of abuse.

Two working parties were also set up – a policy group involving people from across the business, and an education group focused on engaging colleagues.

A ground-breaking policy

In terms of its domestic abuse policy, Morgan Sindall Infrastructure now offers 10 days paid leave to victims. They can use this time to leave a violent home, for instance. Those in need are also entitled to an advance on their salary if necessary. If the employee’s abuser works for the organisation, the policy allows for a change in working patterns to reduce contact. The company will also ensure that someone does not work alone and help divert threatening emails and calls.

Meanwhile, the education working party linked its work with the annual international campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This presented a timely opportunity that coincided with media reports about domestic abuse.

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure then put together a webinar with Hestia to explain to colleagues the new support within the business. Sarah says that although it’s challenging to find people to come forward and disclose abuse, two employees, one male and one female, both agreed to tell their stories. “It was very powerful,” says Sarah.

During the webinar several people spoke about abuse they had suffered in the past. This was the result of getting people to talk amongst themselves rather than the session being led by HR – the team recognised that this could be an inhibitor.

Visually accessible

A new page on the company intranet shared information on where people could go for help. Sarah also commissioned a company to create illustrations about different types of domestic abuse, from physical and psychological abuse to financial and emotional control. These were put up around the company’s projects and offices, including toilet doors.

She was keen that the posters captured the intensity of the different forms of abuse without being upsetting. A further priority was to subvert stereotypes, such that only women are the victims of abuse. Each poster had a QR code which linked to more information.

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure also worked with Hestia to sponsor an independent domestic violence advocate. This indivdual directs people – both victims and those concerned about a friend or colleague – to the right support, which ranges from help in court to financial support and behavioural programmes.

Now, Sarah is looking at further ways to increase awareness, including along the Morgan Sindall Infrastructure’s supply chain. She is also exploring potential partnerships with schools to deliver sessions to sixth formers.

“We are continuing the drumbeat of conversation about this subject,” she says.

A broader approach

Other construction firms also have domestic violence policies – or are developing them. Morgan Sindall’s Property Services arm, which maintains 200,000 properties, has provided domestic abuse training to all employees. This focused on driving understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse, how to spot it and what to do in case of concern about a colleague or a customer.

This is a key focus, as property service operatives were among the few people entering people’s homes during the pandemic. People delivering essential services can play a crucial role in spotting signs of abuse and assisting victims to seek help.

Morgan Sindall’s independent domestic violence advocate has received a number of approaches from employees and members of the public. Because all conversations are completely confidential, the company cannot be certain of the level of impact. “But even if we have helped a few people and changed their lives, that is important,” says Katie.

“It is such an honour to do this,” adds Sarah. “It is not often you get the chance to make such a difference to people’s lives. The more we have conversations about these things, the more we can lift the lid on what is happening.”

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