With its workforce an almost perfect reflection of New Zealand’s make up, The Warehouse Group was certain family violence – a major problem in New Zealand – affected its people.
“But it’s not something people talk about openly,” says Julie Simpson, General Manager, People Experience and Employment Relations for The Warehouse Group. The group includes companies such as Noel Leeming, Torpedo 7 and 1-day.co.nz, along with its Warehouse and Warehouse Stationary stores.
“Family violence thrives in silence. There’s a lot of shame so people often hide injuries and mask abuse. They might call in sick, or just resign and leave work. Or they might come but not be able to work at their best.
"They might also suffer from anxiety and depression or be using drugs or alcohol to mask the situation. However it affects them, people living with family violence are significantly impacted.”
Julie says businesses are now understanding workers need to bring their whole selves to work, and that what happens in their lives outside of work has a direct impact on who they are and how they perform at work.
“Family violence directly impacts on their productivity, absenteeism, workplace relationships, engagement, retention and turnover. On top of that, addressing a massive social issue by supporting staff experiencing family violence is simply the right thing to do.”
So Julie and The Warehouse Group created a Family Violence Policy that stretches across the companies. She worked with Women’s Refuge, with whom The Warehouse has a long-standing relationship, to create the policy.
“From its vast experience, Women’s Refuge told us a huge barrier to leaving a violent situation is financial dependence as the person often has no leave remaining, having taken so much time off to nurse injuries or deal with situations.
“We’ve reduced that barrier by giving up to 10 days’ additional paid leave so they make the necessary choices to keep themselves and their children safe. We keep their job secure and put them in touch with organisations that can help them.”
In some cases The Warehouse has supplied staff with an untraceable phone so they can still communicate without being tracked or contacted by anyone unwelcome. The policy also allows time off for employees to use sick, domestic or unpaid leave to support friends or family dealing with family violence.
Importantly, users of violence are offered help. “That’s about prevention - ‘top of the cliff’ actions to prevent violence from happening. This is aimed at people who realise their behaviour towards their partner isn’t healthy and want to change.
“We can refer them to organisations for help, and we can hold their job while they complete the courses. However, if they don’t put their hands up and we become aware they’re using violence, under our policy we take a zero-tolerance approach to violence so we will take action.”
The Family Violence Policy is widely communicated to staff, who are encouraged to talk to Julie or their manager. Which means, of course, the Warehouse Group’s Leaders need to know what to say and do.
Julie worked with Women’s Refuge and White Ribbon to develop a two-hour workshop for managers. “It’s about providing managers with the skills to navigate sensitive conversations – what to say and what not to say. Also what practical support we can offer, and which agencies to refer people to for help in which situations.”
Managers are also given a poster, or cheat sheet, reminding them what to say and do if someone comes to them. All resources – the policy, training presentation, workbooks and cheat sheet – are freely available for other businesses to download, adapt if necessary and use. In fact, Julie encourages it.
“Family violence is a horrendous problem for NZ and affects all workplaces big or small. Small businesses can be impacted greatly if someone is absent or not working at their best. They’re less able to absorb the effects of violence when employees take time off or resign.
“Smaller businesses may think it’s too difficult to act, but we’ve done the hard work by creating these resources. Many businesses have already adopted our materials for themselves. In fact, just counting the bigger companies, I estimate at least 150,000 New Zealanders are now protected by family violence policies.”
Even staff who haven’t used the policy tell her they feel positively about it, Julie says. “Our people feel that if we’re the kind of company that would protect and support people in such dire situations, they trust us to make the right decisions in other areas.”
For confidentiality reasons Julie won’t say how many people have directly benefited from the policy. “But it’s well utilised by females and males – both users and victims of violence. We’ve supported people from the shop floor to senior executives, from different ethnicities and in hetero and same-sex relationships. Our experience is that family violence is very much across the board.”
She says more people are asking for help, which is about an increased confidence that help is available rather than increased violence.
“We’ve just shed light on what was always there. People are grateful for the support and I’ve had people say, ‘You have saved my life’, but also, ‘I would have had to have left my job if this help wasn’t there’. Ultimately that means they come back to work, happier, engaged and present, which is good for everyone.
“Helping our people out of violent situations means fewer children are witnessing violence and can grow up in a different environment. We hope our Family Violence Policy is helping break the cycle of violence, which is good for our communities and for New Zealand.”
Also to support the wider community, The Warehouse has a small computer screen icon in its website footer, which means people can access information in a shielded site that won’t turn up in their internet history.
Julie says she’d like to do more around preventing violence. “For now we need to focus on people who are affected by violence, but we’d very much like to get ahead of the curve and do more in the prevention space.
"The more we can help people understand what healthy and respectful relationships are – including work relationships – and how to stop violence escalating, the better for everyone.”
Also see the website Business Working to End Family Violence, which was created by the Human Rights Commission and seven of New Zealand's largest employers to support businesses in their work towards ending family violence.