When 37-year-old Denise Neves dos Anjos, a store manager at Brazil’s largest retailer, Magazine Luiza, was stabbed to death by her husband in 2017, it made Adriana (a pseudonym WorkLife agreed to), a 42-year-old secretary at the same company, realize the danger she was in herself.
Adriana saw parallels with her own relationship — her husband first struck her three months after they were married in 2008. The physical abuses did not stop — including a blow to the head while she was holding her then one-year-old daughter. Neves Dos Anjos’ death, however, drove Adriana to take action.
“I thought, ‘oh my God — maybe that will happen to me’,” Sao Paolo-based Adriana told WorkLife via a translator.
Neves Dos Anjos’ killing had shaken up the whole company. Magazine Luiza (known locally as Magalu) chairwoman Luiza Helena Trajano immediately created a taskforce of prosecutors, activists, psychologists and social workers to set up an employee hotline and support program.
Adriana was the first Magalu employee to contact the hotline. The company helped her find a new apartment in Sao Paolo, temporarily took care of her rent and acted as guarantor for her rental contract. It also provided mental health therapy and connected her with, and paid for, legal support.
Magalu has since supported nearly 700 female employees in abusive relationships using its TV Luiza internal channel to regularly encourage affected people and concerned colleagues amongst its 50,000-strong workforce — 50% of which is female — to come forward. It currently has 100 cases open, 60 of which are considered high risk — defined by the fact they still live with or are closely connected with their abusers.
Magalu’s corporate reputation and sustainability manager, Ana Luiza Herzog, estimated that 2% of women working at Magalu currently suffer from some form of domestic violence, The number of murdered women by their partners have seen an uptick during the pandemic.
“We are simply a mirror of the problems in Brazilian society,” said Herzog. “To say, ‘it’s not our business, let’s not do anything’ — that’s not going to work. We have to do something.”
Magulu works closely with the local police and social services, yet there is no legislation in Brazil compelling companies to offer any kind of domestic violence support, despite having low levels of female safety compared with countries like the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, according to the WomanSats database. These countries have either mandated employer support or offered direct government assistance.
In the U.K., where the number of domestic abuse-related cases between March and June 2020 jumped 9% compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Office of National Statistics, national media branded the situation an “epidemic beneath the pandemic”. While there is no legislation around employer provisions, the U.K. government has called on employers to “spot the signs” and “help staff find support”.
These stark figures prompted Reward Gateway, an employee engagement platform operating across the U.S., U.K., Portugal, Bulgaria, Australia and South Africa, to launch its domestic violence support program at the height of the pandemic.
Catrin Lewis, the company’s head of global engagement and internal communications, believes corporate domestic violence policies should now be as commonplace as workplace health and safety guidelines, especially given the rise of remote working. It offers paid leave and financial support to cover legal and new accommodation costs.
“Health and safety policies recognize that you’re responsible for your employees’ physical wellbeing in the workspace. If a home space has become a workspace, then it should be under health and safety rules that you have domestic violence support in place as a mandate. But I don’t think enough companies have made that connection yet,” said Lewis.
The company keeps program uptake data confidential, so while Lewis is its internal point of contact, she’s unaware of how many people have needed support. But companies can make a real difference, she added, by acting as a less intimidating reporting alternative to the police.
“It’s a big step for somebody to actually phone the police. A uniform can be very intimidating, and some people might not connect with or feel trust in that. But if you’ve got a good manager, they may feel that they can do that with their employer instead,” said Lewis, who also spent nearly three years with Thames Valley Police dealing with domestic violence inquiries in the U.K.
The business case stacks up when you consider that, in the U.S., victims of domestic violence lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year, while up to 60% of victims lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from the abuse, according to the American Psychological Association.
But what about smaller companies that can’t afford paid leave and financial support? That question is what drove Sandhya Iyer, managing director of small business HR consultancy The HR Department, to help create a domestic violence guide for all U.K. employers, regardless of their size.
Known as “Sharon’s Policy”, for the business executive Sharon Livermore who was forced to take five days annual leave while her now-imprisoned ex-partner went on trial for domestic abuse, Iyer argued companies shouldn’t wait for the situation to arise before rolling out a support program.
It could be as simple as understanding how to intervene sensitively against things like uncharacteristically poor performance, Iyer added.
Iyer gives the example of a new care-industry employee at risk of failing her probation because of an abusive relationship hindering her ability to work from home. Arrangements were made for her to work from the office even during lockdowns, and to take her therapy sessions there too. She has since left her partner, yet remains with the company.
“Everybody’s budgets and operational needs are different, but you don’t want to be trying to figure out how you would support an employee when an issue surfaces,” said Iyer.
As Iyer summed up: “domestic violence is not just a problem within the four walls of your house.”