Alan Price, HR Director at Peninsula, gives employers some advice on how to avoid claims of discrimination against pregnancy women in the workplace.
The Women and Equalities Committee has called for UK women to be given more protection at work when they are pregnant and after they have given birth.
The Committee reported that 54,000 women were forced to leave their jobs because of concerns about the safety of their child, or because of pregnancy discrimination. Examples of pregnancy and maternity discrimination may be:
– Dismissing an employee during maternity leave because her maternity leave cover is ‘better’ than her;
– Not paying certain bonuses due to the employee during maternity leave;
– Refusing a flexible working request on return from maternity leave ( this may not always be discrimination, but it could be).
Pregnancy is one of the protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010, meaning that it is unlawful to subject a woman to unfavourable treatment because she is pregnant.
This can be a tricky area for employers in practical terms because employees sometimes will not know for sure that an employee is pregnant and there is no requirement on an employee to inform her employer that of her pregnancy until 15 weeks before the baby is due.
However, a suspicion that the employee is pregnant is enough to be classed as ‘knowledge’ of the pregnancy and so lack of absolute knowledge is not always a defence against any discriminatory treatment.
Discrimination in the workplace is often unintentional, but this is not a defence against a claim of unfavourable treatment. One such area where this occurs is with pregnancy-related absences. Women often suffer from sickness during pregnancy which may lead to their absence from work. Sickness absence policies and procedures are vital in an organisation to maintain good attendance and productivity and so employers are always strongly encouraged to deal with all types of sickness absence robustly.
Because of this, the employer may look to take action against a pregnant woman who is often off work due to sickness. To the employer, the absence is the priority. However, where absence is linked to the pregnancy, it would be an act of discrimination to discipline the employee for this so employers should discount pregnancy-related absences from the total amount of absence.
Similarly, withholding bonuses linked to attendance would also be discriminatory, as would denying promotion opportunities or training.
Employers should not make assumptions about a pregnant employee’s commitment to work because of her pregnancy and so should still make all usual opportunities available to her, but should consider the pregnancy-related risks to any of these.
Other ways in which the employer can make sure a pregnant employee does not get discriminated against include developing and implementing a policy prohibiting discrimination against pregnant women. Employers should also provide training to all supervisors and employees that pregnancy discrimination is strictly prohibited and make sure that pregnant employees receive fair and equal treatment in the workplace.
Finally, an employer should thoroughly investigate all claims of pregnancy discrimination and handle the matter with sensitivity and discretion.