July 23, 2018

The #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment and violence in the workplace front and center. But what about violence that occurs in the personal lives of employees, such as domestic abuse and sexual violence?

Is this something that employers should be thinking about and create policies to help support employees who have experienced this type of abuse? The answer is yes.

In Ontario, domestic and sexual violence leave is now a job protected leave of absence in the workplace.  Employees are legally entitled to up to ten full consecutive days of leave and in some situations up to fifteen weeks in a calendar year if the employee or the employee’s child has experienced or been threatened with domestic violence or sexual abuse. The first five days of the leave are paid and the remaining days are unpaid.

Other provinces, such as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, have either already brought in similar legislation or are in the process of introducing it. Federally, the Government has amended the Canadian Labour Code to include five paid days of domestic violence leave and ten days of unpaid leave.

Domestic violence is a major problem in Canada and continues to be immensely prevalent. According to Statistics Canada 2015 data, in 2013, there were over 90,300 victims of police-reported domestic violence in Canada.

Sexual violence, which is often a component of domestic violence, is also widespread. Also according to Statistics Canada 2015 data, between 2009 and 2014, there were 117,238 police-reported sexual assaults in Canada.

While these numbers may seem high, the reality is that the majority of domestic abuse and sexual violence incidents go unreported to police. Therefore these statistics represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Domestic and sexual violence has a profound impact on victims in the workplace. It causes severe health consequences which have a significant impact on job performance and work attendance. Depression, PTSD, anxiety and extreme stress are some of the types of trauma that victims of this abuse deal with daily.

It is not uncommon for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence to try and keep this abuse a secret from family, friends and colleagues for a long period of time. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear of being disbelieved and fear of retaliation by the abuser are some of the things that prevent victims from seeking help. These situations are further complicated when the victim has children with the abuser. Victims often want to maintain some form of ‘protective stability’ in the home for the children, and are reluctant to report abuse for fear that this will result in criminal charges against their partner or a lengthy court battle for custody of the children.

Abusive relationships often spill over into the workplace because control is a primary element of the abuse. The abuser will often try and gain access to the victim at work through excessive texting, phone calls, emails or even showing up at the workplace.

Taking steps to leave an abusive relationship is one of the hardest things for a victim to do. Domestic and sexual violence leaves of absence allow the victim to take the time that he or she needs to obtain emergency counselling, deal with moving out of the residence shared with the abuser or obtain medical treatment.

Here are some things that employers can do to support employees who are victims of domestic and sexual violence:


  1. The employee should have access to resources such as helplines, trauma centers, shelters, counsellors, legal help and medical assistance. Put together a list of resources and support the employee in accessing help. Your local women’s shelter usually has a list of resources, so that is a good place to start in preparing your own list.


  1. Ensure the employee is not in immediate danger and encourage he or she to phone the police.


  1. Ensure the employee has access to somewhere safe to stay and has alerted close friends and family members who may assist.


  1. Ensure the office is safe. Access to the office should be restricted to employees. If the washroom is shared with other offices on the same floor, access to it should also be restricted to individuals who have a key or know the door passcode.


  1. Be vigilant in protecting the privacy of the employee. The employee’s home phone number/cell number should not be listed on the employer’s website and should never be given out to individuals calling the office. It is not uncommon for domestic abusers to attempt to access their victim through his or her place of employment.


  1. Human Resources staff should be trained in how to support victims of domestic and sexual violence. Consider inviting someone with expertise in the field to attend your office and conduct a training seminar to management.


  1. Ensure that all employees know about their right to a leave of absence in the event of sexual or domestic abuse – this should be included in the company employee policy.


  1. Have clear policies on what evidence, if any, you require from employees taking this leave. In addition, have clear policies on what, if any, notice you require.