Most small business owners that maintain a paid staff will, at one time or another, have a pregnant employee in the workplace. In fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate that fully 80 percent of all working women will become pregnant at some point in their working lives. Historically, this news has not always been welcomed by employers, and while research and highly publicized episodes indicated that mid-sized and large companies have been more likely to behave in a discriminatory fashion against pregnant employees than small businesses, which on the whole are more likely to cultivate a more relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere, the latter have also been known to look unkindly on news of an employee's pregnancy. Indeed, researchers have observed that attitudes toward pregnant employees have tended to be predicated more on company culture than on the size of the firm. For example, a small business headed by a driven entrepreneur who is determined to meet or exceed an ambitious agenda of growth may greet the news that his or her top salesperson is pregnant with far less equanimity than the leadership of a larger company that places greater weight on the long-term value of the salesperson.
For the most part, companies of all sizes have adopted more enlightened views of workplace pregnancy issues in recent years. This change can be traced in part to their need to comply with legal protections that have been established on behalf of pregnant workers, but it can also be attributed to increased recognition of the vital importance of women in the workplace and increased awareness of the negative impact that discriminatory practices can have on other women employees and on bottom-line performance. Nonetheless, unfair treatment of pregnant employees persists in some quarters. "Despite the laws designed to protect workers who become pregnant, female employees increasingly believe they are unfairly denied promotions, proper medical leave, and even their jobs because they have become pregnant, or because they might become pregnant," wrote Amy Oakes Wren, Roland E. Caldwell, and Linda Ache Caldwell in Business Horizons. Wren, Caldwell, and Caldwell blame this festering problem in large measure on management inability to recognize the fundamental demographic changes taking place in the American workplace: "The issue of pregnancy discrimination has become even more focused as women of childbearing age enter the work force at higher rates and corporate downsizing forces many managers to seek higher levels of productivity among remaining employees. Unfortunately, some managers have taken unlawful actions against pregnant workers because they perceive them as less productive, absent more often, or unable to perform their jobs."
Over the past few decades, the United States has passed three major federal laws that provide legal protections to pregnant employees as well as employees who might become pregnant. These are Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993.
TITLE VII OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT This legislation expressly forbids employers with 15of more workers on their payroll from refusing to hire, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against any person in any way, shape, or form because of that person's gender. However, this law left a giant loophole for employers, because the Supreme Court ruled in a mid-1970s case that discrimination based on pregnancy was not the same as discrimination based on sex. In other words, a disability plan that provided benefits to both men and non-pregnant women was found to meet the criteria of Title VII. Such plans, said the Court, were simply insurance policies that covered some risks and not others. Pregnancy was ruled to be one of those risks that was not covered.
PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION ACT OF 1978 This law was drawn up to close the above-mentioned loophole. This legislation stipulated that all employers treat pregnant and non-pregnant employees in the same way, both in terms of benefits received and all other respects.
FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT OF 1993 When it passed in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was hailed as a ground breaking law that provided important federal protections for both men and women faced with issues related to pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, placement for foster care, and family sickness. It was bitterly opposed by some segments of the business community, but family advocates ultimately prevailed. The FMLA stipulates that men and women can take as many as 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for the birth or adoption of a child, care of a sick child, placement for foster care, or because of morning sickness or other illness (the illness does not have to be pregnancy-related). Employers and employees alike should note, however, that the FMLA does not impact businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Wren, Caldwell, and Caldwell cited a number of ways in which employers—either intentionally or unintentionally—can run afoul of the various antidiscrimination rules that have been erected to protect women employees who are or may become pregnant. "Examples range from intentionally eliminating pregnant applicants from the labor pool to unintentionally discriminating against a pregnant woman because of an apparently sex-neutral insurance policy," they wrote.
The above guidelines add up to a very simple mandate for employers: Treat your pregnant employees no differently than you would any other employees.
Obviously, pregnant employees should not have to endure discrimination from their employers. Indeed, many researchers, executives, and business owners contend that employers that are understanding and treat their pregnant employees fairly can often count on a heightened level of loyalty from that employee upon their return from maternity leave. But businesses also have to recognize that employee pregnancy means the loss—sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent—of workers, some of whom may be quite valuable to the firm's operation.
Businesses, then, have to figure out "how to balance the personal needs of a pregnant worker with the bottom-line imperatives of running a business," wrote Julia Lawlor in Sales and Marketing Management. She noted that effective management of this issue entails paying attention to the impact that pregnancy-related absences can have on important business areas, such as sales: "In a fiercely competitive marketplace, governed by even fiercer laws protecting women against discrimination at work, managers must be prepared to handle a host of difficulties surrounding pregnancies and maternity leave: How to accommodate a rep [sales representative] who's having a difficult pregnancy—severe morning sickness, backaches, complications that require bed rest—without seeming unfair to other reps; deciding who should cover a rep's territory while she's out, and how that person should be compensated; determining who will visit out-of-town customers when the salesperson is unable to travel; navigating antidiscrimination laws."
Not surprisingly, prior planning is often cited as an essential element of effectively managing the impact of pregnancies on business operations. Business owners and managers should study in advance how the pregnant person's responsibilities will be handled in her absence. Many experts encourage those owners and managers to talk openly with the pregnant employee about possible work dispersal options. The pregnant employee is often the person best equipped to make knowledgeable decisions about allocation of responsibilities. Moreover, opening and maintaining good communication with the pregnant employee can provide owners and managers with the information (anticipated length of maternity leave, restrictions on travel, etc.) they need to make informed decisions about business operations.
In addition, companies have to make sure that other employees that are impacted by a staffer's absence due to pregnancy are adequately compensated for the extra work that they take on. Employees that are asked to "cover" for a pregnant colleague for an extended period of time without receiving any parallel adjustment in compensation or recognition will quickly recognize that their employer is in essence trying to get something for nothing. Employers who do this may manage to keep all facets of the business running fairly smoothly, but it can also erode employee loyalty to the business and create needless friction between the pregnant employee and her coworkers.
Compliance Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act. U.S. Department of Labor, 1996.
Dessler, Gary. Human Resource Management. Prentice Hall, 2000.
Kenen, Regina H. Reproductive Hazards in the Workplace: Mending Jobs, Managing Pregnancies. Harrington Park Press, 1996.
Lawlor, Julia. "Pregnant Pause." Sales and Marketing Management. February 1998.
"Managing a Salesperson's Pregnancy." Sales and Marketing Management. February 1998.
Oakes Wren, Amy, Roland E. Caldwell Jr., and Linda Ache Caldwell. "Managing Pregnancy in the Workplace." Business Horizons. November-December 1996.
Shellenbarger, Sue. "Pregnant Employees Worry About Effects of Workplace Stress." Wall Street Journal. July 26, 2000.
Wyld, David C. "Morning Sickness: Testing the Proper Bounds of Employee Protection and Employer Prerogative Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act." Labor Law Journal. February 1995.
SEE ALSO: Family and Medical Leave Act