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The Pregnant Pause: How to Respond to Baby News

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"I’m pregnant!" … Two words that can make an employer cringe on the inside but smile on the outside. And, as this employer found out, while the baby might not be kicking yet, you can be assured the pregnancy laws have officially kicked in …

Case in Point: Sara Hillins, an account director at a Minnesota marketing firm, announced she was pregnant. At the same time, she announced that she intended to take maternity leave for 14 weeks. Within two days, she was removed as the lead of a company industry group and discussions of her impending promotion to a VP position ceased.

pregnantAs her maternity leave approached, Hillens asked her boss if her job would be there when she returned from leave. He allegedly responded that “a lot of women say that they're going to come back and they don't, so we need to proceed like you're not coming back.” He added that he didn’t know what her position “will look like” upon her return. He also allegedly told Hillins that he “wished that [she would] just spend time at home with her son when he was born.”

While Hillens was out on maternity leave, the company initiated a reduction in force and Hillens job was RIF’ed. Hillens sued for discrimination and retaliation under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and state laws.
The company defended its actions by claiming the RIF was necessary and legitimate.

What happened next…and what lessons can be learned?

The court did not buy the employer’s story, saying there was no proof of a business decline that legitimatized the RIF. The court also upheld the retaliation claim, reasoning that because Hillens announced her pregnancy and leave plans at the same time, a jury could reasonably believe the RIF was retaliation for exercising her legal rights to take maternity leave.

The EEOC’s take on this: “Women cannot be singled out of work simply because they become pregnant … The EEOC rigorously defends a woman’s right to be and stay employed irrespective of her child bearing status.” (Hillins v. Marketing Architects Inc., D. Minn., No. 10-02845, 9/6/11).

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

1. Take a pregnant pause. When an employee announces she is pregnant, stop, pause and respond only with, “Congratulations!”

2. Use formula. In this case, the winning formula to minimize litigation is to let the employee go out on maternity leave and come back to the same job.

3. Don’t play peek-a-boo. Now you see your job, now you don’t. Never make comments about whether a pregnant employee should come back to work or remain at home or the job will be there or it won’t. It’s solely up to the employee to decide their future and your opinion can only land you in court. Don’t play games!

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