What to do when an employee announces a pregnancy

For some business leaders, the idea of an employee becoming pregnant can be terrifying. Why? Because some leaders are so afraid of discriminating that, instead of taking positive action on the issue, they take no action at all. Here are five pointers which Business Advice recommend to get you started…

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article which appeared on Business Advice

Never dismiss an employee on the grounds of pregnancy – it’s against the law! 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 disrupt your workplace 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 make a claim if they feel 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.

If the role the pregnant employee is leaving needs filling straight away, 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 discrimination accusations or court action.

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

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.

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

What if 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.

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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 which could result in an unfair dismissal/sex discrimination claim.

You can monitor their absences; however, prolonged, pregnancy-related absence from work doesn’t mean the employee gets limitless maternity leave. In fact, if the employee is absent from work 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.

Also, remember that partners are entitled to unpaid time off 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!

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 clarify what these are, as taking them away could lead to a discrimination charge.

Be flexible and patient…

…even if you have to bite your proverbial tongue to do it. Imagine a scenario where an employee wants 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. If you’re still not up for it you will have to provide a serious case as to why it wouldn’t work.

Paying due diligence to the process, and providing evidence is key; so is patience. The most important thing is to be fair to, and supportive of, your pregnant employees, valuing and supporting them, and avoid creating circumstances which could lead to legal disputes in any shape or form.

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