Engaging with employers for women's sake

More than 500 managers and business leaders have participated in Engage to Change, the preventative education program developed by McAuley Community Services for Women, to enable employers and their employees to proactively address family violence in the workplace.     

The program has also led to the development of a “Response Skills” module for employers in how to facilitate a crucial conversation with staff that are experiencing family violence and are seeking support from their workplace. The program was trialed by an agency and has been successfully evaluated to be offered as the second step after the Engage to Change program.

Mary Bartlett, Head of Projects, said the Engage to Change program is tailored to meet the specific needs of any organisation. It now involves a comprehensive analysis of the company or violence profile before any program is run onsite. This usually involves developing a family violence policy which includes family violence leave options.

“We need to ensure the company has the structure in place to cope with family violence staff issues. The last thing we want is for someone to disclose to a manager where there is no process in place to support the person who is living with family violence,” Mary said.

“Before going in with our Engage to Change facilitators, we work closely with the managers and HR to determine what they want and what is needed to create an environment that can support people.”

Engage to Change’s two-hour awareness program is run by a male and female workplace educator to facilitate a gender inclusive conversation. The target audience is usually HR specialists, contact officers, managers and business leaders in small groups of 16. However some organisations have rolled the training out to all staff so that awareness on the topic has a broader reach. Already, a range of businesses leaders from the sporting, banking, health, insurance, legal, and local government sectors have participated in the program.

The Engage to Change program is a response to alarming figures about the impact of family violence on business and the employee, usually a woman, who is living with violence and trying to maintain a job.

Family Violence costs Australian business an estimated $484 million each year due to lost productivity, increased use of sick leave, poor performance, absenteeism and recruitment costs. By 2021 this figure is expected to rise to $609 million if nothing is done (according to The Cost of Violence Against Women and their Children, KPMG 2009).

Recent surveys in Australia and overseas have estimated between 10–30% of employees may be affected by family violence in any 12-month period.

“The financial cost to business is enormous, but the cost the women involved is horrendous. We have so many stories from the women who come to McAuley Works who tell us they lost their job because they were considered unreliable. But they couldn’t go to work because of a black eye or some other injury and they didn’t feel they could talk to their boss about it. Then they couldn’t get a reference from their former boss and getting another job becomes more difficult,” Mary said.

The Engage to Change program covers:

  • Recognising family violence and its impacts
  • Identifying risks for staff
  • Responding effectively to disclosures of family violence
  • Knowing where and how to refer women for help.

The program also includes information about family violence offenders and where they can be referred for support. Mary said referral was a key to the program because managers were not expected ‘to fix’ an employee’s problems with a violent partner, but they needed to know how to support the woman to find help.

The evaluation after the program also asks participants to look at what their business or company will do next to support women to maintain their jobs.

The development of the “Response Skills” Module was prompted by feedback from participants who were nervous about how to respond effectively if an employee came to them to discuss work problems associated with family violence. The two-hour Engage to Change session cannot cover everything so the follow up module will focus on responding appropriately with sensitive communication skills and tapping into the range of practical supports available for business leaders in their management of affected staff.

“We know from our work that women make about eight attempts before they finally leave a violent partner. There are many reasons for this, but one is often financial dependency on their partner. This is even worse if they cannot maintain their employment,” Mary said.

Mary said the feedback from participants was encouraging. One Health Service participant said, “Little did we know how much we didn’t know nor how powerful and practical a training program like this could be”. Another said,

“Thanks for helping the leadership team understand the importance of recognising the signs and to have the courage to ask the right questions.”