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Disclosure in the Workplace


Whether or not to disclose an episodic disability in the workplace is a difficult and deeply personal decision. You might be concerned about stigma and discrimination, a negative reaction from your employer or coworkers, or even losing your job. On the other hand, you might benefit from a more open and honest relationship with your supervisor, colleagues and clients, which may result in increased workplace accommodation, lower levels of stress and higher levels of productivity.

With regard to workplace accommodation, you do not need to disclose your episodic disability. However, if you do request a workplace accommodation, you must let your employer know the nature of your workplace limitations and your employer may in turn ask for a doctor’s note to support your accommodation request. See the Workplace Accommodation section for more information.

Employers and co-workers do not have the right to share or release any information you disclose about an episodic disability. If this occurs and you are treated differently as a result, see the section on Stigma and Discrimination.

To access insurance benefits in the workplace, illness disclosure may be required but this depends on the type of insurance plan. For more information, see the section on Extended Drug and Health Benefits.


Q - Who do I disclose to first — my boss, my coworkers, or HR?

A - How and who you disclose your episodic disability to in the workplace is entirely up to you. Each organization is different and every person is different.

If you choose to disclose, decide in advance how much you want to say, how you want to say it and when you want to say it. You may want to practice what you will say with someone you trust before disclosing.

Disclosing can be a very emotional experience, even if it goes well. Preparing how to disclose can help you avoid disclosing when you don’t want to. You may wish to seek out an appropriate support counsellor to map out how best to approach the issue of disclosure.

Q - Once I’ve disclosed to one person, won’t everyone else find out?

A - Legally the person you disclose to does not have the right to tell anyone else.

If you feel that you have been treated differently as a result of disclosing to one person or because someone has shared information about your illness, there are several options:

  • Ask yourself: am I being discriminated against on the basis of one of the protected grounds of discrimination (i.e. disability, race etc.).
  • Speak with the discriminator, request a meeting with someone higher up in your organization, or write a letter of complaint.
  • Write down all of the events, conversations or situations that make you think you have been, or are being, discriminated against. Make sure you include who was involved, what happened, and when each event happened (date and time). Gather anything that will support your story– documents, memos, names of people who witnessed events, performance reviews, e-mail print outs etc.
  • If you have questions, talk to somebody. If you have a Union Representative, contact them and ask for information and support.
  • Find out if there is a complaints process at your workplace or through your union. Check your employee handbook, collective agreement, or talk to someone in the human resources department to find out what the complaints process is. If there is no process, or if you are unable to find out what that process is, you can write a letter of complaint to whoever you think is the best person to talk to. Make sure you do everything in writing, and ask that they reply in writing within a certain period of time. Make sure you keep a copy of the letter for your files and that you put a date on everything that you send.
  • If writing letters or filing a complaint with your employer is unsuccessful, there are other options. You can file a human rights complaint with your local Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, or you can launch a civil lawsuit.
  • You may also want to seek additional support from your local disability organization
  • For additional information, see the AIDS Calgary Awareness Association Employment and HIV/AIDS Fact Sheet

Q - Will I need to disclose more than once?

A - Some companies experience changes in management frequently. If you disclose to a manager in a company with frequent changes, it is possible that the person you disclose to may move to another position in the company or may leave the company. The relationship of trust that was built with the previous manager might not be strong with the new manager. Each situation will be unique but know that if you choose to disclose, you might need to do so more than once.

Q - How do I explain my absence(s) from work to my colleagues without disclosing my episodic disability?

A - You are not required to disclose details about your episodic disability to colleagues. But you may still be asked about your periods of absence and illness.

One way of dealing with this situation is to redirect the focus from you to the workplace. For example, you might answer: “Yes, I was off work for a while but now I’m back. I imagine that there have been some changes around here. Can you tell me what’s new?” Or, “Yes, there will be times when I will be off work, and will miss not being with you. Please keep me informed of changes if they occur. Thank you for your interest.”

Anticipating your colleagues’ questions and thinking about how you might answer will decrease the likelihood of unintentional disclosure. Choose a response that best fits you and your comfort level to help avoid disclosing if or when you don’t want to.


Sponsored By:
Mac AIDs Fund Logo
This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program – Disability component.

Realize (formerly CWGHR) also acknowledges the financial support of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Public Health Agency of Canada