10 Steps to Protect Yourself from Pregnancy Discrimination and Save Your Job

Or, How to Fight for Your Rights and Get Out with a Severance Package.

Step 1.  Realize that pregnancy discrimination is real, alive and well and occurring every day in some American workplace. Given the brutal economic climate and outlook, it’s easy to find yourself in a pickle once your company learns that you’re pregnant. Your family may be thrilled, but your pregnancy’s definitely not a major selling point to your company.

What, I should congratulate you? (Says your boss to himself). Sorry, your pregnancy isn’t good for business. First, you’ll need tons of time off for doctor’s appointments, sonograms, blood and other tests, lab work, and God knows what else, ‘cause something always happens with the pregos, trust me, and you’ll likely miss work or be late during your first trimester because you’ll be calling out sick, or gagging in the subway from morning sickness. And then, you’ll need a million bathroom breaks the more pregnant you get–you’ll be in the john more than you’re at your desk–your pregnancy is not good for our business.

I can’t make you work ‘til all hours of the night anymore as you’ll need to get home at a reasonable time to eat dinner and take care of yourself. And you can’t even take clients out for drinks and a good time, now that you’re done with drinking and having a good time. Remember that ambitious, hard-partying, attractive young go-getter we hired just a few years ago? Anybody seen her around? She’s vanished. Very disappointing. Replaced with a larger, higher maintenance, mother-to-be model. Oh joy.

And, btw, you sure don’t look as sharp as you used to (people are talking), and even though I now know what you’ve been doing when you’re not at work (eww, really?) your visible pregnancy is bleeding into my time now, and it’s kind of altering the high regard I used to hold you in, even if I can’t or won’t actually admit that it’s true; admit that I’m resentful. I’m just saying.

Finally, the clincher, the coup de grâce, the icing on the cake, is that you’ll need to be out of work for your little baby vacay forthree whole months, and, wait for it–your due date is smack dab in the middle of our busiest season–high five!

Step 2  Realize that it’s not in your head. You’re not overreacting. It’s happening. You tried to deal with it on your own, you sat down with your boss and explained to him that you are ready, willing, able and excited to travel to the big trade show in Paris next month, for example, but he kept telling you that he can’t expose you to the rigors and dangers of traveling and flying now that you’re “with child,” so he’s not letting you attend, or he’s making sexist or stupid, disparaging comments.

Or he’s just plain messing with the conditions of your employment because for whatever his reasons, he’s not happy that you’re pregnant. It bothers him that you gotten yourself knocked up. Could be simple sexism, conscious or not, or just a resentful reaction to the limitations that your pregnancy and maternity leave will have on his operations–doesn’t matter—if things started going down the toilet only after you told your company that you’re pregnant, or only after you started showing, and your performance is otherwise of high quality, you are likely experiencing pregnancy discrimination in your workplace.

Step 3  Realize that pregnancy discrimination is illegal. So you must oppose this unlawful employment practice, becausepregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination, and it’s also often disability discrimination, as certain pregnancy-related limitations may accompany your pregnancy, and your maternity leave is by definition a disability leave (at least some part of it is), and disability leaves of absence are protected under federal, state and local anti-discrimination, or “Human Rights” laws.

Step 4  Complain. In writing. Or some other provable way, such as tape recording your verbal complaint, if you work in a “one-party consent” state for digital recording purposes, without the other party’s knowledge or permission. Here’s why: Under the applicable federal guidelines and laws, if you feel that you are being discriminated against based on who you are as a pregnant woman, you must notify your company about what’s going on so that they can investigate your protected complaint..

After your company completes the investigation into your concerns, if they agree that you’re experiencing discrimination, they must fix it, take corrective action, so that the hostile work environment and discrimination doesn’t continue to harm you.

Even if you spoke about the hostility to your company’s Human Resource person when you ran into her in the hallway, and she seemed perfectly nice, sympathetic and on your side, always follow up by email so that you’ve got a paper trail of yourprotected complaint, as such a record could prove critical later on if things really go south, as any adverse employment actiontaken against you would appear—and may well be in actuality—retaliatory, i.e., negative backlash resulting from your concern about the way you have been treated at work ever since your pregnancy became common knowledge.

Step 5  Follow up.  So, you’ve sent a letter of complaint to the powers that be, a letter that says, in sum and substance, dear human resource person: I love working here, and I’ve been an outstanding employee for years, adding substantial value to the company’s bottom line, but unfortunately, ever since I told my manager Joe Smith that I’m pregnant, he’s been so hostile toward me, or he’s made some biased, ignorant, sexist or unpleasant remark about my perceived value now that I’m pregnant, or he keeps mentioning my upcoming maternity leave as if he’s doing me a favor, and he seems to not expect me to return to work either, and/or he touched my belly without asking for my permission first, and now I’m hurt, upset, stressed and distraught, so please contact me at your earliest convenience to discuss these serious workplace issues. Thank you. Signed, You.

Then wait and see what your company does. They’ll likely want to meet with you and ask you a bunch of questions. That’s good. So, meet and speak, as you must cooperate with their investigation. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll do the right thing, understand what you’re complaining about, and come to your aid and rescue by fixing it.

Step 6  Keep their feet to the fire. They’ve interviewed you and spoken with your managers and co-workers. How’s it going now? Are things getting better or worse? Has anyone said anything? Is it taking weeks for them to respond with something definitive? Be sure to follow up in writing, always politely and professionally keeping everyone honest by stating what’s going on, and by asking relevant questions, so that you’re maintaining a written chronology and story line that will be obvious later from the email threads that you’re creating. This documentation of your meetings and discussions is perfectly appropriate and protective, if and when things finally do go off the rails completely.

Step 7  Get the good news. Suppose you had notified your company that you’ve been getting less support from Joe Smith your supervisor ever since you were out for one week in your second trimester due to severe abdominal pain and cramping. You tried to speak with Joe about it but he won’t give you the time of day anymore, and it’s negatively affecting your work performance and morale, as you’re feeling anxious, shunned, upset and fearful.

The HR person calls you in to meet with her 2 weeks after you first spoke with her about these concerns and tells you that after completing the investigation, they’ve  decided to have you report to Linda instead of Joe (Linda’s super nice and has two young kids of her own). They’re also sorry that you had to go through so much aggravation, but they appreciate that you brought it to their attention, as they’re an Equal Opportunity Employer, and they have zero tolerance for sex and pregnancy discrimination.

That’s awesome. You thank her profusely and then later that day you email her again, this time to thank her for taking the time to speak with you, and to tell her that you also appreciate that the company was sensitive to your concerns, and that you’re so looking forward to working under Linda starting next Monday, the effective date of the transfer.

See, you’ve just won the battles and the war. No more Joe, replaced by a new and improved boss, and you’ve clinched it all with a thorough record (that old reliable paper trail you’ve heard so much about) of your complaint and its resolution, so that if you ever suffer any backlash later, you’ve got the whole civil rights thing squared away nicely.

Step 8  Get the bad news instead. After you brought the pregnancy-based hostility to your company’s attention, they spoke with your manager and reviewed the situation, and it turns out that your manager has found all kinds of non-pregnancy related problems with your work, performance and attitude, and he’s saying that your deficiencies were noticeable (and documented) way before your baby was even conceived, let alone showing, and making you run to the ladies’ room 10 times a day.

Suddenly your company is flipping it on you, saying that you’re only complaining about discrimination to avoid facing the music of your failing performance, and also because they are none too pleased that you’re refusing to go along to get along in their dysfunctional culture, so they’re placing you on a Performance Improvement Plan. Time to shape up or ship out, young lady.

This scenario is only slightly exaggerated to illustrate the point, which is that for some women, their pregnancies irreparably alter the landscape of their jobs, forever changing the manner in which they’re viewed, and the person responsible for this loss of confidence in their abilities is often, but not always, the male manager, who seems to feel disappointed, slighted or betrayed by his employee, solely for the sin of getting pregnant, for having a life outside of work, for not being the perfect underling.

And when companies are confronted with this particular dynamic, playing out in the form of a “she said, he said” conflict, where the “he” is the superior and more “valuable” player and the “she” is pregnant and something of a liability to the company, given that her job responsibilities will still need covering during her three-month maternity leave, and as she’s been upset about issues related to her sex and pregnancy, the company is on dangerous ground as this is civil rights territory, so they often opt to remove this growing problem now, before it gets worse, and unfortunately, you are the growing problem.

Step 9  Talk to an employment lawyer. The consult’s probably free. You can’t possibly know all the nuances at play in your particular workplace challenge unless you brainstorm with an attorney who concentrates in employee rights, preferably in the city or state where you work, as so much of law, like so much of politics, is local. You’re looking for a Plaintiff-side employment lawyer, so you can search online, call your local bar association, contact the folks at www.nela.org, or contact me directly here.

If after speaking with attorneys (as with doctors, it’s always a good practice to get at least one second opinion) it seems clear that this marriage can’t be saved, that the prognosis for remaining gainfully employed with your company is dim, and you found an attorney who gave you an insightful consultation and is willing to represent you, then you may want to start the process of divorce negotiations with your company, a separation that is typically accomplished in 8 to 20 weeks or so, when it’s successful.

Step 10  Get Out of Dodge. Ride Off Into the Sunset. I’m out of bad cowboy clichés, but now that you’ve ratcheted up the controversy through a letter accusing your employer of sex and pregnancy discrimination (mostly likely sent by your attorney, although some women manage to negotiate their final exit on their own), it’s time to take action toward your separation from this company’s payroll. Why would they negotiate with you? Because they want you out, and if they fire you, or give you an even harder time now, the company’s actions will be appear retaliatory in response to your protected complaint.

So, unless you punch your manager in his face, or come to work dead drunk, or otherwise give them a great reason to fire you independent of the pregnancy issues, they’re stuck with you, although you’re stuck with them too, so it behooves everyone to bite the bullet and work out a compromise separation that allows you to leave this place with dignity, with your shoulders squared and your head held high. And it won’t hurt to take some of their money with you too, in the form of a severance payment to defray the harms and losses you suffered while working under these conditions, and for leaving their employ.

When it has to happen, when the terms or conditions of your employment take a hit because of your pregnancy, or as a result of events and conditions surrounding your pregnancy in any fashion, following these 10 steps to protect yourself may permit you to leave with a financial cushion, unemployment benefits, a “neutral” employment reference, and best of all, an empowered departure will allow you to ease into a peaceful maternity leave with your baby, unmarred by severe workplace stress.

(Feel free to download my free book, Guide to Pregnancy Discrimination, or contact Deborah O’Rell for further information regarding how the Women’s Rights in the Workplace Advocates can support you through your workplace challenges).