HR · 27 September 2019

What to do when an employee announces a pregnancy

Random announcements of pregnancy are but one of a vast array of what we can call ‘life’s inevitabilities.’ Especially if you’re a business owner employing both women and men – and in similar numbers, there’s a likely chance that you’ll have female staff who will decide to start a family at some point in their career. The important thing for you is that you know how to respond and handle the situation, including what rights both you and they – are entitled to.

For some employers, the idea of an employee becoming pregnant can be terrifying. Why? Because some owner-drivers are so afraid of being prosecuted (if they’re seen to be discriminating against the pregnant employee due to their condition), that instead of taking positive action on the issue they take no action at all.

The fear of offending – and getting sued

Some employers are afraid of confronting the ‘pregnancy issue’ at work.

Dealing with this issue effectively requires an employee to do three things well.

The first, to ensure the continuous operation of the company in spite of any interruption a departing pregnant employee may unintentionally cause, the second, to provide the said employee with the full support she requires, including full access to her employment-related rights, and third to avoid a business damaging lawsuit.

All easy in theory, perhaps, but how clued up are you on the pregnancy issue? Here are five pointers to get you started…

1.  NEVER dismiss an employee on the grounds of pregnancy

You can also face legal disputes if you discriminate against an employee on maternity leave or on return to work.

Seems obvious right? But even if you think the pregnancy was planned, or the person had some devious ploy up their sleeve to bring down your company with the announcement, (please don’t question a woman’s reproductive biology), it’s important to remember that there are serious legal ramifications for sacking them – even if you want to.

Paying due diligence to the process and providing evidence is key. So is patience. The most important thing is to avoid legal disputes.

First and foremost, you could be hit with an ‘unfair dismissal’ or sex-based discrimination claim. Employees on maternity or paternity leave can also go for these claims if they feel like they have been dismissed unfairly and due to their parenting responsibilities.

So remember not to treat ‘working dads’ or new mothers differently from pregnant employees in terms of their rights.

Part-time staff and returning mothers

Think part-time employees are any different? Then think again! They are entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave regardless of the number of jobs they undertake or their weekly earnings.

But say the role the pregnant employee is leaving needs filling straight away? Then you must make clear to potential interviewees that you’re hiring for a temporary or fixed-term maternity cover contract. Do not pull the job right from under an employee’s feet just because they are pregnant, or discrimination claims could flare-up.

Also, don’t be tempted to move the returning mother sideways if the replacement is a better fit for the role, it’s the returning employee’s legal right to return to the job she (temporarily*) left. Again, it’s not worth risking the discrimination accusations or court action.

2. Watch their health while they’re still working – and after

sick days are good for business
It’s important to keep an eye on a pregnant employee’s health.

Make sure your employee takes at least a fortnight’s leave from work immediately after the birth of the baby. For employees who work in more ‘physical’ roles, such as in factories, make it a month. If you run such a business, it’s important to assess how appropriate it is for a pregnant employee to undertake physically demanding work during the late stages of pregnancy at all.

If they are unwell while pregnant, treat them as you would treat any other (non-pregnant) employee that falls sick, and proceed in accordance with your company policies of employee sickness and absence.

Think she’s taking liberties?

Say a pregnant or returning (post-maternity leave) employee is taking prolonged sick leave and you think it’s not genuine – what should you do?

If she claims that her illness is pregnancy-related, avoid taking any action against her (including attempted dismissal) whilst she is still pregnant or on maternity leave, as this could give her cause to take you to court for unfair dismissal or for sex-based discrimination.

Even if your claim is against her prolonged absence due to sickness which isn’t related to pregnancy, be careful as it’s easy for the plaintiff to conflate this and her pregnancy and, ergo – unfair dismissal/sex discrimination claims galore.

Also, remember that partners are entitled to attend at least two ante-natal appointments. So, avoid discriminating against an employee involved in a pregnancy just because they don’t have a baby bump!

3. You can monitor their absences

But prolonged pregnancy-related absence from work doesn’t mean the employee get’s limitless maternity leave. In fact, if the employee is absent from work because of even just in part due to her pregnancy, and it’s during the four weeks before the week in which the baby is due, the maternity leave period will start automatically, even if they intended to come back at a later date.

Pregnant employees are also entitled to paid leave to attend medical appointments related to their pregnancy. While little can be done about these inevitably frequent absences from work, employers can request evidence to put their minds at rest, such as asking for doctor’s letters and the like.

4. Don’t take away any employee benefits or perks

During ordinary and additional maternity leave, employees have the right to retain any perks that come with their jobs such as company cars, work phones and company laptops. This includes less tangible things like gym memberships too. It’s important that employers read their employees’ contracts carefully to remember what these are, as taking them away without a thought could lead to a discrimination charge.

5. Be flexible and patient

– Even if you have to bite your proverbial business tongue to do it.

Imagine a scenario where they want to return to work post-pregnancy but in a part-time role, (which is something that you as an employer – don’t want), remember that you’re legally obliged to consider the request.

Then, if you’re still not up for it you will have to provide a serious business case as to why that wouldn’t work. Paying due diligence to the process and providing evidence is key. So is patience. The most important thing is avoiding any legal disputes in any shape or form.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Annie May is the Features Editor at Real Business and Business Advice. Following her graduation from LSE, she embarked upon a freelance career in current affairs journalism. Annie has written on subjects varying from African history and contemporary politics to community business and current affairs news in London. At Real Business and Business Advice, Annie is passionate about highlighting inclusive and diverse business disruptors and organisations for our evolving readership. Annie believes in fostering community inclusion and has volunteered for organisations such as Fairfield House, a UK based Rastafari centre and a senior citizen association for ethnic minority men and women.

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