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#CallItOut Supporting victims of economic abuse in the workplace

Sarah Ingwersen International Women's Day

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating the achievements of women and forging a gender- balanced world. Yet it’s also a celebration, and acknowledgement, of women’s political struggle to secure statutory rights and achieve equality.

This International Women’s Day[1] we wanted to recognise this ongoing campaign to secure women’s rights, as well as the extraordinary women behind these achievements.

We were therefore joined for a Q&A session by Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs who is the founder of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA)[2] and the #CallItOut campaign, as well as being the driving force behind the inclusion of economic abuse in the forthcoming statutory definition of domestic abuse.

#CallItOut[3] is a campaign to challenge the current terminology and language surrounding abuse. Both ‘abusive relationship’ and ‘domestic abuse’ imply a shared blame and normalcy, adding to a wider climate of normalisation and victim-blaming, as well as a sense that it’s a private matter and therefore not to be interfered with. It’s hoped by raising awareness of how language reinforces these perceptions, a deeper understanding of the barriers victims face in escaping from their abuser can be fostered.

Throughout the Q&A, the discussion turned to the role the workplace – both employers and colleagues – can play as the frontline in helping to spot the signs of abuse, call it out and support victims, especially before it becomes a crisis situation.

Defining economic abuse

Economic abuse is:

“When someone interferes (through control, exploitation or sabotage) with their partner’s ability to acquire, use and/or maintain economic resources, including: money, housing, transportation, utilities, or items such as food or clothing. It reinforces or creates economic instability, limiting the victim’s choices and ability to access safety. This lack of access to economic resources can result in victims staying with an abusive partner longer than they would like and experiencing more harm as a result.”

It differs from financial abuse in that it’s much wider in scope. Whereas financial abuse refers solely to limiting access to money and finances, economic abuse includes the access to the things that money can buy.  

Given the gender stereotype of men as the breadwinners, the vast majority of economic abuse victims are women.

Recognising economic abuse

Upon hearing the story of Annie[4], who managed a team of nineteen and earnt more than her husband, the conversation quickly began to focus on the innate vulnerability of women to economic abuse – regardless of career or wider socioeconomic status.

After hearing about a social worker who was recently murdered by her abuser after attempting to flee the situation, the discussion then turned to the signs of economic abuse and the difficulty involved with recognising when it’s taking place.

Economic abuse is built on the creation of economic instability, which limits the choices a victim can make. As working provides a source of financial and economic independence, it therefore follows that the abuser should seek to sabotage the victim’s professional life. This can manifest itself in attempts to discredit the victim to their employer by manufacturing situations where they are unable to fulfil the requirements of their role.

Beyond this, unlike physical abuse, the signs are often more subtle. From changes in appearance to a different demeanour, the signals are generally discreet and incremental. There may be increased absences that are excused away, an unwillingness of victims to put themselves forward for new projects or roles, or even an avoidance of work-related social situations. Crucially however, they all equate to slight changes in the victim’s everyday behaviour.

How the workplace can help

The relationship between work and financial independence means that the workplace is often one of the first places that the signs of abuse materialise.

It’s also the case that how a workplace chooses to respond has the ability to vastly impact the victim. If the signs are not recognised and a decline in performance results in disciplinary action, then this will only serve to exacerbate the economic instability and the abuse. However, if the signs are recognised and the victim is supported, then the workplace can be instrumental in averting further harm.

So, what are the measures employers can take to ensure their approach falls into the latter category?

  • Policies:

A company policy around economic abuse is an ‘invitation to tell’, giving victims the reassurance that an employer is understanding and supportive, and that they won’t face repercussions for the impact the abuse is having on their job.

  • Awareness raising:

Employers can ensure all employees are aware of two things: firstly, what economic abuse is and what the risk factors are and, secondly, what the warning signs look like.

  • Training & guidelines for line managers:

Above and beyond awareness raising, line managers need to know how to manage the situation so as not to exacerbate it. It’s also crucial that it is dealt with delicately and in such a way so as to avert it turning into a crisis situation. Company guidelines that are informed by best practice are a useful tool in guiding next steps.

These measures will help to remove the stigma of abuse, which prevents victims from speaking up and securing the support they need to leave their abuser.

It’s vital that victims do not carry any shame related to their situation and workplaces can be a truly positive force in removing stigma, spotting economic abuse, supporting victims and calling out the behaviour of abusers.