When governments around the globe initiated lockdown measures in early 2020, it was with the aim of keeping people safe and free of covid-19 infection. However, as with most good intentions, there were some unforeseen consequences, especially for those who consider home to be anything but a safe and free environment.
In March 2020, Women’s Aid warned that social distancing and self-isolation could be used by domestic abusers as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour. Indeed, reports of domestic violence soared across the UK during the early days of the crisis. A report released by MPs revealed domestic killings doubled in the first 21 days of lockdown and, between March and June 2020, police in England and Wales recorded 259,324 domestic abuse-related offences – a 7% increase on 2019. In Northern Ireland, official data showed abuse was at a 15-year high even before lockdown, rising to an average of 88 incidents each day by the end of June 2020.
By its very nature, domestic abuse is a hidden crime committed behind closed doors and away from prying eyes. With abuse rarely reported to the police, official data cannot hope to present a full picture of the abuse experienced by both women and men across the UK, let alone on a global scale. Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation estimates that one-in-three women and one-in-six men worldwide will be subject to domestic abuse in their lifetime. That lockdown might exacerbate these figures, or at least certainly cut off victims’ routes to safety, was a sobering thought to those fighting to raise awareness and assist the abused.
With the pandemic raging, Jenny Moore, the Belfast-based employment counsel at Danske Bank UK and a non-executive director for Women’s Aid Northern Ireland, was determined to raise awareness of domestic abuse within the financial and legal services sectors. Through Moore’s efforts, and with critical support from colleagues, Danske became the first private-sector employer in Northern Ireland to implement a domestic abuse policy that provides support for victims and education for perpetrators. For this landmark work, Moore, who only joined Danske at the start of the pandemic in May 2020, was recently awarded in-house lawyer of the year at the Inspirational Women in Law Awards.
We are not the experts in domestic abuse, nor do I expect any of my colleagues or any of the managers in Danske Bank to be
“If you look at the employment population of any large entity, there are absolutely going to be staff who either now, historically, or in the future are going to be subject to domestic abuse,” says Moore. “I was always very clear to get out the narrative that lockdown doesn’t cause domestic abuse. Abusers do. So we were very clear in terms of this being a support provision for victims in Danske.”
As Moore explains, preparing a domestic abuse policy was an extremely complex, multifaceted project that required significant due diligence and extensive conversations with experts in the field, as well as the government and Financial Services Union. “I was very clear with myself and the business that we are not the experts in domestic abuse, nor do I expect any of my colleagues or any of the managers in Danske Bank to be experts. We are there to provide signposts to our colleagues; we’re not there to give them advice on how to flee domestic abuse. That’s for the likes of Women’s Aid and the Men’s Advisory project.”
A former in-house lawyer at the Police Service of Northern Ireland between 2018 and 2020, Moore was able to leverage her relationship with the force’s Public Protection Unit to give context to why the bank’s policy was needed. “With oversight of all reported domestic abuse-related incidents across the country, they were a real fountain of knowledge for us,” says Moore.
Having joined the Employers’ Initiative for Domestic Abuse as a chartered member, and received positive feedback from Women’s Aid and the Men’s Advisory Project on the bank’s draft policy, Danske launched its new support function at a virtual event on 30 March 2021. “We recorded that session because we were aware this type of content can be particularly triggering for colleagues. We wanted people to be able to watch in a safe psychological space and have access to a whole host of support mechanisms if they needed it.”
Danske’s policy was incorporated into Danske Belong, an umbrella brand covering each of the bank’s equality networks. “Domestic abuse impacts women, but it can impact men, too. It can also manifest in the LGBTQ+ or minority ethnic communities. Launching it as part of Danske Belong really conveyed a message to the business that this was for absolutely everybody, even though – yes – it does disproportionately have an impact on women.”
So, what does the policy actually provide? Victims of abuse are entitled to 10 days special leave, at full pay, to use for medical or court appointments, for example, or to spend recovering from their abuse. Managers have the discretion to provide further leave, if required, and can arrange for workers to change their place of work for safety reasons. But of particular note is the bank’s provision of emergency funding. “If you’re a victim and you need funding to escape a relationship, we can provide that for you,” explains Moore. “Also, you can request that your salary be mandated to a separate bank account. That was a real bespoke offering by virtue of us being a bank.”
While we have a duty of care for our colleagues who are victims, we also have a duty of care for our people leaders who we’re asking to raise awareness and provide guidance
Launching the policy was not the end of the process, Moore explains. “We recognised the need to train our people leaders on what to do if someone was to disclose their abuse or what to do if you have suspicions a colleague is in an abusive relationship. What steps can you take?” Enter the experts at Women’s Aid and the Men’s Advisory Project, which have provided Danske’s managers with training on this very issue.
“While we have a duty of care for our colleagues who are victims, we also have a duty of care for our people leaders who we’re asking to raise awareness and provide guidance,” Moore adds. “Again, our expectation is not that they become experts. It’s making sure people don’t feel that they’re being entrusted with a responsibility they can’t meet because they don’t have all the tools they need.”
In addition to supporting the victims of abuse, it is notable that Danske has not shied away from engaging with abusers themselves. “If we have perpetrators of abuse in Danske Bank, and that comes to our attention, we will take steps to deal with that,” says Moore. “What are those steps? Well, typical lawyer’s answer, that will depend on the circumstances. It may be that we assist the perpetrator in seeking help. If their actions are bringing Danske into disrepute, then we might notify our regulator or take disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
The importance of the “perpetrator piece”, as Moore calls it, is important when you consider that with around 1,500 staff across Northern Ireland, there may be circumstances where a victim and an abuser both work in Danske. “We need to be alive to that and how we would go about ensuring that appropriate steps were taken for the victim to ensure they do not to come into contact with the abuser. We try to go as far as possible to take steps to protect the victim,” says Moore.
On a practical level, Danske has launched its Domestic Abuse Support for Colleagues Hub, an interactive forum with a host of material for staff to access when they need it. With safeguarding in mind, the bank has also incorporated a domestic violence-related safety feature on the intranet site. “When you visit the site, there’s an escape functionality so if someone’s watching you from over your shoulder, it will take you straight to the Google homepage,” explains Moore.
Supporting the victims of domestic abuse is undoubtedly a worthy initiative from any progressive employer. And yet, so few have such a programme. “Because of the recognition of what lockdown was doing to domestic abuse victims, the UK government formed a roundtable to understand how it could better support businesses in supporting victims. It was found that only 5% of employers nationally have specific domestic abuse policies or guidelines in place and less than one person a year will disclose domestic abuse to their employer. I understand we were the only private-sector entity in Northern Ireland at the roundtable,” says Moore.
“It’s so important to have a domestic abuse policy because domestic abuse can manifest in a work context in terms of absenteeism and sickness,” she continues. “It’s so prevalent in society. It could be going on next door and you wouldn’t know. But when I pitched the policy I said we needed to look beyond the statistics. These are lived experiences of our colleagues. If we don’t raise awareness, we are compounding the narrative that there is a stigma attached to domestic abuse in the same way that, years ago, there was with mental health. We want to get to a place where we can readily talk about domestic abuse to assist colleagues to escape abusive relationships.”
Danske was widely viewed as a responsible employer even before the launch of its landmark domestic abuse policy. The bank has received silver status – the highest possible – from Diversity Mark NI, an accreditation awarded to companies committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. And yet, the bank is not resting on its laurels.
This past summer, Danske launched new policies that provide colleagues with 10 days paid special leave for parental bereavement and pregnancy loss. This move is significant because, unlike in the rest of the UK, there is currently no statutory parental bereavement leave in Northern Ireland. “We took a view that that wasn’t a place we wanted to be as an employer,” explains Moore. “There are no administration requirements to access our policy. All we need is a text or a phone call to a manager. We recognise that you can’t legislate for these types of events and, therefore, how the communication is handled is very important.”
Also of note, Danske’s Human Resources team has been hard at work throughout the pandemic providing training and support for colleagues across a wide range of wellbeing initiatives. “Mental health has been on our radar for a long time,” says Moore. “This year we put together a range of awareness programmes, raising support for colleagues who might need access to wellbeing initiatives while going through internal employment processes. We are also proud to have Aware, the only charity in NI working exclusively for people with depression and bipolar disorder, as our charity partner.”
The former A&L Goodbody associate continues: “I love being able to get involved in the strategy side of how the business operates and being part of these conversations; actually being at the heart of business decisions. In the in-house world, you’re more central to those conversations, I have the opportunity to have a detailed understanding inside the business, while also looking outside to the wider business community – both nationally and globally – in terms of best practice.”
So, what’s next in the pipeline for Danske? Well, according to Moore, there is plenty more to come. “We want to make Danske the best place possible to work and that’s why our prospective candidates want to come and work for us. How Danske treats its people is phenomenal. It wants to be a responsible employer, wants to care for its staff right across each of the provinces where our branch networks sit, and that translates into how we care for our customers,” she says.
“We want the best people to come and work for us because we are doing the right thing by our colleagues,” Moore adds. “I love that this business is very much at the heart of the Northern Ireland community. It does so much to help customers, colleagues, and society thrive. That very much says exactly what it’s here to do, and my head’s in that space, too.”
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