• LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google+

Never assume a pregnant employee is unable to work; ask questions

by on
in Firing,Human Resources,Maternity Leave Laws

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), you can't fire a pregnant worker simply because of her condition. Nor can you force her to take leave as long as she's physically able to perform her job. Now, as the following case shows, making automatic assumptions about a pregnant woman's ability to carry the workload can land you in trouble, too.

Recent case: On her first day as manager of an Old Navy store, Joanna Laxton told her supervisor she was pregnant and was due around Thanksgiving. The supervisor said maternity leave during the busy holiday season would be a problem. Soon after, Laxton received two disciplinary warnings that seemed bogus. She wasn't allowed to correct the behaviors, even though the company had a policy of allowing corrective action. She was fired for additional "performance issues" and was replaced by a male employee.

Laxton sued, alleging violation of Title VII and the PDA, and won a jury award of $200,000 in back pay and front pay plus $300,000 in damages. An appeals court agreed, saying the real reason Old Navy fired her was because it wanted to hire and train a new manager for the holiday season. (Laxton v. Gap Inc., No. 02-40406, 5th Cir., 2003)

This employer's Bad Move No. 1: assuming the worker would leave the company high and dry. Had the company asked her, prior to knowing about the pregnancy, whether she was available to work extra hours during the holiday season, it would have been able to later point to that as a legitimate business reason for its action. By simply assuming that she'd be unable to carry the workload, it illegally treated her differently based solely on her pregnancy.

Bad Move No. 2: inconsistent, hasty and poorly documented discipline. Because the company couldn't prove that its discipline was warranted, this pregnant employee had an easy time showing that her firing was probably discriminatory.

Bottom line: An employer can't fire an employee on an "unjustified presumption" that the employee's pregnancy will render her unable to fulfill her job expectations, the court said.

Leave a Comment