Returning to work: What counts as workplace discrimination and how do I avoid it?

Workplace Discrimination


For lots of working mums, the excitement of having a child can be made stressful when difficulties at work arise. Women can find themselves being treated poorly by their employer after announcing a pregnancy. Many find themselves sidelined while on maternity leave; left out of important decisions affecting their role within the business while others struggle to agree flexible arrangements when returning to work.

It is important that you know your rights when returning to work post maternity/ adoption leave. This will give you a better understanding on what type of conduct in the workplace would amount to discrimination and, most importantly, how to avoid it.

Three things you should know on returning to work

  1. Your employer cannot change your working hours or shift pattern without your consent.  Some contracts will say that your employer may make changes, usually on giving you reasonable notice, but employers can only use ‘flexibility clauses’ to make reasonable changes. The first thing to do therefore is to check your contract. It might say something like, “We reserve the right to vary contractual terms as may be required to meet the needs of the business. You will be given reasonable notice of any change”. If there is nothing like this in your contract and you have not been consulted on the proposed changes, your employer will be in breach of contract if they impose the changes without your agreement.
  2. Should your employer unjustifiably force you to accept a flexible hours contract in circumstances where your proposal could reasonably have been implemented, you could pursue claim of indirect sex discrimination in the Employment Tribunal.
  3. As for applying to work flexibly, you should make your request, in writing, as soon as possible. The law requires your employer to consider your request carefully, taking into account the benefits to you of the changes you seek and weighing these against the adverse impact, if any, that implementing the changes would have on the business. All requests and appeals must be considered and decided upon within three months of receipt, unless agreed otherwise. While all employees have a right to request flexible working there is no right to insist on working specified hours or a particular shift – even if to do so would help you better manage childcare. However, where a vacancy exists on a shift which would accommodate your childcare responsibilities a refusal or ‘conditional acceptance’ could land your employer in hot water.

Employers have the opportunity to help women in the workplace, especially to achieve their career ambition. There are generally handbooks including policies for employees to follow, these can include family friendly policies such as maternity or adoption leave and flexible working. These policies are reviewed over time and can be amended by the company to ensure that women are not placed at a disadvantage.

Discrimination in any form should not be tolerated in the workplace. Unfortunately, many women are still subjected to discriminatory treatment when pregnant or returning to work after having a child.

If you have been the victim of discrimination, bullying or harassment in the workplace, it is important to get the right help and support. Simpson Millar’s solicitors specialise in discrimination claims and can provide you with the expert legal advice you need.

If you would like to discuss discrimination or any other employment issues their expert team would be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Please call Freephone: 0800 206 1525. Alternatively, you can: Request a call back on their website. They would be more than happy to assist anybody who would like further support.

linda-stewartLinda Stewart is Partner and Head of Employment Law at nationwide firm, Simpson Millar Solicitors. An accredited mediator, Linda has over 15 years’ experience specialising in Employment Law and is an expert in advising and representing women experiencing difficulties in the workplace.

Linda advises on all aspects of the employment relationship, but specialises in particular in the area of sex discrimination; supporting working women to challenge pregnancy and maternity discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, unfair dismissal or redundancy, and equal pay issues.

Linda supports women to tackle these tricky situations; she understands the lasting effect pregnancy and maternity discrimination can have on a woman’s income and career development.

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