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Most business owners that maintain a paid staff will, at one time or the other, have a pregnant employee in the workplace. Over 80 percent of all working women will become pregnant at some point in their working lives. This news has not always been welcomed by employers, and while research and highly publicized episodes indicated that midsized and large companies have been more likely to behave in a discriminatory fashion against pregnant employees than small businesses, which on the whole are more likely to cultivate a more relaxed, family friendly atmosphere, the latter have also been known to look unkindly on news of an employee’s pregnancy.

Attitudes toward pregnant employees have tended to be predicated more on company culture than on the size of the firm. For example, a small company headed by a driven entrepreneur who is determined to meet or exceed an ambitious agenda of growth may greet the news that his or her top salesperson is pregnant with far less equanimity than the leadership of a larger company that places greater weight on the long-term value of the salesperson.

For the most part, companies of all sizes have adopted more enlightened views of workplace pregnancy issues in recent years. This change can be traced in part to their need to comply with legal protections that have been established on behalf of pregnant workers, but it can also be attributed to the increased recognition of the vital importance of women in the workplace and increased awareness of the negative impact that discrimination practices can have on other women employees and on bottom-line performance.

Nonetheless, unfair treatment of pregnant employees persists in some quarters. Despite the laws designed to protect workers who become pregnant, female employees increasingly believe they are unfairly denied promotions, proper medical leave, and even their jobs because they have become pregnant, or because they might become pregnant.

The issue of pregnancy discrimination has become even more focused as women of childbearing age enter the work force at higher rates and corporate downsizing forces many managers to seek higher levels of productivity among remaining employees. Unfortunately, some managers have taken unlawful actions against pregnant workers because they perceive them as less productive, absent more often, or unable to perform their jobs.

How employers can avoid discriminatory behavior

There are a number of ways in which employers, either intentionally or unintentionally, can run foul of the various anti discriminatory rules that have been erected to protect women employees who are or may become pregnant. Examples range from intentionally eliminating pregnant applicants from the labor pool to unintentionally discriminating against a pregnant woman because of an apparently sex neutral insurance policy.

Employers may not refuse to hire, refuse to promote, or fire an employee because of her pregnancy. Moreover, experts warn that a person’s pregnancy cannot be any factor in the action taken. If the pregnancy was a consideration in any way, shape, or form, then the employer is liable.


Employers have to provide the same benefits to all employees, whether or not they are pregnant, although they do not have to provide additional benefits to pregnant workers.


Employers may not refuse to adjust workloads for a pregnant employee if they do so for a worker who is not pregnant but claims some other disability or mitigating circumstances.


Employers may not discriminate against staff members who 1) have had an abortion, or 2) are considering having an abortion.


Employers may not forbid a pregnant employee from continuing to work if she wants to and is physically capable of doing all tasks associated with the work.


Employers may not evaluate pregnant and non-pregnant employees differently. This is especially true when the employer has unilaterally lessened the employee’s work load in response to the pregnancy.


Employers have a responsibility to make sure that pregnant employees are not excluded from taking part in the normal office environment, since such exclusions can have a detrimental impact on the employees’ cognizance of work related issues.


Employers may not threaten to fire an employee because of her pregnancy or potential pregnancy.


Employers are not allowed to reassign employees to low paying positions because of pregnancy. Similarly, employers may not change a worker’s job description and then eliminate the new job via reorganization.


Employers may not engage in discriminatory practices against men whose wives or partners become pregnant. It should be noted, however, that application of this law may vary from state to state, since states have different views of the rights of married and unmarried couples.


Employers cannot demand medical notes from a pregnant woman’s doctor concerning her work status if they do not require similar documentations from doctors of other employees who have short-term disabilities.

The above guidelines add up to a very simple mandate for employers: treat your pregnant employee no differently than you would any other employees.

Managing the loss of employees during pregnancy and maternity leave

Pregnant women should not have to endure discrimination from their employers. Indeed, many researchers, executives, and business owners contend that employers that are understanding and treat their pregnant employees fairly can often count on a heightened level of loyalty from that employee upon their return from maternity leave. But businesses have to recognize that employee pregnancy means the loss, sometimes temporary, sometime permanent, of workers, some of whom may be quite valuable to the firm’s operation.

Businesses, then, have to figure out how to balance the personal needs of a pregnant worker with the bottom line imperatives of running a business. Effective management of this issue entails paying attention to the impact that pregnancy related absences can have on important business areas, such as sales. 

In a fiercely competitive marketplace, governed by even fiercer laws protecting women against discrimination at work, managers must be prepared to handle a host of difficulties surrounding pregnancies and maternity leave: how to accommodate a sales representative who is having a difficult pregnancy such as severe morning sickness, backaches, complications that require bed rest, without seeming unfair to other reps: deciding who should cover a rep’s territory while she’s out, and how that person should be compensated; determining who will visit out of town customers when the salesperson is unable to travel; navigating anti discriminatory laws.

Not surprisingly, prior planning is often cited as an essential element of effectively managing the impact of pregnancies on business operations. Business owners and managers should study in advance how the pregnant person’s responsibilities will be handled in her absence. Many experts encourage those owners and managers to talk openly with the pregnant employee about possible work dispersal options. The pregnant employee is often the person best equipped to make known knowledgeable decisions about allocation of responsibilities.

Moreover, opening and maintaining good communication with the pregnant employee can provide owners and managers with the information (anticipated length of maternity leave, restrictions on travel, etc.) they need to make informal decisions about business operations.

In addition, companies have to make sure that other employees that are impacted by a staffer’s absence due to pregnancy are adequately compensated for the extra work that they take on. Employees that are asked to “cover” for a pregnant colleague for an extended period of time without receiving any parallel adjustment in compensation or recognition will quickly recognize that their employer is in essence trying to get something for nothing.

Employers who do this may manage to keep all facets of the business running fairly smoothly, but it can also erode employee loyalty to the business and create needless friction between the pregnant employee and her co-workers. If you find this article useful, please share and subscribe to our newsletter.

Bernard Taiwo
I am Management strategist, Editor and Publisher.

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