A guest blog from Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT).
Intimate partner violence (IPV) impacts nearly one in three employees in Canada. IPV is not only experienced in personal spaces but often enters workspaces, impacting not only the employee experiencing IPV but co-workers as well.
IPV can take many forms of abusive behaviors, including psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, physical and sexual abuse. A lesser understood form of abuse that often shows up in the workplace is employment sabotage. Employment sabotage involves tactics in which an abusive partner prevents their partner from working or makes it difficult for their partner to keep working. For newcomer and immigrant women, who already face added barriers to employment, employment sabotage can compound their ability to seek and maintain employment. For employers to address the barriers newcomer and immigrant women face, these nuances need to be understood.
What is employment sabotage?
In WomanACT’s recent study Intersections Between Employment and Safety Among Racialized Women in Toronto, we found that 56% of women faced employment sabotage outside of working hours. Women described their partners hiding their keys so they were unable to work, destroying their work items such as laptops, or starting arguments and disrupting their sleep before an important day at work. Women struggled to remain productive at work, amid the sabotage and threats of violence. Employment sabotage can continue into the workplace through harassing phone calls and stalking, making it an unsafe work environment both for the woman and other employees. Forty-nine percent of women feared for their safety at work because of an abusive partner or ex-partner. Employment sabotage can lead to job loss and have long-term impacts on women’s career progression. However, workplaces that are supportive and responsive to IPV offer a safe place, access to support and long-term security for survivors.
“Emotional blackmail and harassing me while I’m at work led to me breaking down at work and feeling scared that he might cause a scene or embarrass me. I was not able to concentrate at work and it shows due to my mood and expressions.”
How is employment sabotage impacted by experiences of immigration?
Employment sabotage has different impacts on different women. The different identities that women hold, such as race and immigration experience, can impact their experiences of violence. Twenty-nine percent of women reported that their race or immigration status was used in the employment sabotage. For example, women told us that their partners used their fear of racism to justify their isolation as a new immigrant or to deter them from applying for jobs. Immigrant and newcomer women can also be dissuaded from disclosing abuse in the workplace because of the stigma attached to their community, or because of concerns around their immigration status. Fifty-three percent of participants reported racism impacted their experience of being a survivor at work, for example because their disclosures were treated differently by employers.
Newcomer and immigrant women trying to gain financial independence and flee violence are faced with a labor market discrimination. Fifty-one percent of survivors of IPV had experienced racism at hiring stages and sixty-three percent of immigrant women reported that not having Canadian work experience or certificates was a barrier to employment. Women described the difficulties of having to seek funding and gather physical and emotional energy after their experiences of violence to retrain in order to rebuild after leaving an abusive relationship.
“I think a person of color has to work that much harder to be listened to, to be promoted, to be looked at that as someone who has a good judge of character. You have to prove yourself that much more than someone who has been privileged [those with social-economic advantage].”
Effective employer responses:
“If our workplace wants to recognize that work performance can definitely be affected by domestic violence, it’s only fair that they offer supports for that to their employees.”
1.IPV responsive recruitment practices:
Newcomer and immigrant survivors of IPV face barriers at recruitment stage, including employment sabotage techniques, as well as discrimination.
What can employers do?
- Employers should be aware that many survivors have gaps in their work history because of abuse which prevented them from working, or because of lack of adequate and affordable childcare. Employers should not use this as a factor to disqualify potential employees.
- Offer accommodation around interviews and communication. Survivors might need more flexibility around interview times and communication due to safety issues.
2.Training and awareness around IPV in the workplace
Survivors spoke about the need for empathetic employers who were knowledgeable of the issues impacting them. They did not feel most employers had adequate knowledge of IPV or about their unique experiences as racialized women. This directly impacted whether they felt able to disclose to their workplaces.
What can employers do?
- Seek training on gender-based violence and anti-oppressive practices. Training on gender-based violence should not just be generalized but speak to the needs of different communities. For smaller workplaces an option might be to reach out to local community organizations, many of which provide information sessions.
- Commit to regular training and information sessions on gender-based violence. It should be a topic that is discussed in the workplace to address stigma and the barriers to disclosure.
3. Create IPV responsive policy and practices
Survivors often struggle with seeking help and support due to being overwhelmed, in crisis and due to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Having simple, clearly laid out and highlighted policies can help survivors access any necessary supports for their employment.
What can employers do?
- Develop policies in compliance with the Ontario Employment Standard Act, including reference to the Domestic and Sexual Violence Leave. Highlight these to employees during onboarding and make these visible in the workplace.
- Create response plans to incidents and plans to minimize risk to employees. Plans to respond to incidents might include numbers to contact in case of an emergency. Plans to minimize risk could include offering accommodation including flexible working practices and flexible hours according to the employees ‘safety needs. For example, allow employees to change to non-public facing roles or schedules to when there are more people in the workplace.
4. Culturally specific and specialized supports
Many newcomer and immigrant women prefer supports which reflect their unique experiences and that are culturally specific to them. If employees do not offer a choice of support that is culturally specific and relevant, women might opt out of the support altogether. For example, employers will often offer examples of women only supports for employees experiencing gender-based violence but will not offer the option to seek culturally specific supports such as a community specific women’s service.
What can employers do?:
- Ensure resources and supports highlighted for IPV include choices for culturally specific supports which are available in the community. For example, smaller workplaces can have a notice in a visible area with helplines for IPV and numbers for culturally specific community organizations for support.
- Invest in diversity within HR teams or provide peer mentorship programs for racialized women in the workplace.
5. Trauma-informed practice
Employers must incorporate trauma-informed ways of working. Ongoing trauma symptoms from abuse can have long-term impacts on women’s careers. Fifty-nine percent of women often experienced flashbacks during work hours, and fifty percent often experienced anxiety or panic attacks during work hours. For racialized women, trauma from abuse can often be compounded with trauma from racism. Forty-nine percent of women reported that discrimination impacted their trauma from the abusive relationship. Creating workplaces that are aware of trauma and mental health can improve survivors’ ability to maintain their employment.
What can employers do?
- Provide flexible workplace practices and adequate domestic violence and mental health leave and accommodations. For example, employers can offer lieu time if an employee experiences anxiety or flashbacks.
- Provide adequate access to affordable counselling through workplace benefits. If counselling is offered through an Employment Support Program, employers should ensure the program offers clients counselling in multiple languages and allows employees to choose a counsellor from their own community. These options should be highlighted to the employees.
- For smaller workplaces, reach out to local community organizations that provide free and affordable support to discuss effective referral pathways.
 Wathen, C. N., MacGregor, J. C. D., MacQuarrie, B. J. with the Canadian Labour Congress.
(2014). Can Work be Safe, When Home Isn’t? Initial Findings of a Pan-Canadian Survey on
Domestic Violence and the Workplace. London, ON: Centre for Research & Education on
Violence Against Women and Children.