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Never blame work deficiencies on pregnancy

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Maternity Leave Laws

Here’s an important tip to pass on to all supervisors: Never speculate on why an employee may be performing poorly. Focus on the work and leave the psychoanalysis to experts.

That’s especially true when you think an employee’s work may be affected by pregnancy or pregnancy-related complications. That almost guarantees a lawsuit if you end up discharging the employee for the alleged poor performance.

Recent case: Theresa worked for Life Time Fitness and became pregnant. After a full-term pregnancy, she delivered a stillborn son. She was naturally distraught. When she returned to work after recovering, she was sometimes weepy and discussed her grief with co-workers.

Then a new supervisor arrived on the scene. He pulled all employees aside for individual conversations. During Theresa’s, he discussed her tears over her stillborn son and suggested she get counseling so it would not affect her work. He also told her others had informed him that her emotional breakdowns were upsetting.

Shortly after this talk, Theresa again became pregnant, but miscarried. Then she became pregnant for a third time and told her boss. He almost immediately placed her on a performance improvement plan. On the day it was to end, Theresa again miscarried. When she returned, she was terminated for poor performance.

Theresa sued, alleging pregnancy and sex discrimination.

Life Time Fitness argued it only terminated her for poor performance. But the court said that her supervisor’s focus on her emotional health and the timing of her performance plan, termination and miscarriages was suspicious enough to send the case to trial. (Gatten v. Life Time Fitness, No. 11-2962, DC MN, 2013)

Final note: The only appropriate response to pregnancy announcements is “congratulations” and to miscarriage news is “So sorry.”

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