When Pregnancy Discrimination Happens to You

If you think you're being subjected to pregnancy discrimination, here are four steps to consider taking.
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Pregnancy discrimination, which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines as "treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth," is more than mere workplace unpleasantness -- it can have a profound impact on your career path, your finances, and your well-being. So if you think you're being subjected to pregnancy discrimination, you should consider taking action.

But which are the right steps to take?

The answer to that question has two aspects -- the human resources angle, or the path you'll follow within your workplace to resolve the issue, and the legal side, or what you'll need to do if you decide to pursue a legal/administrative complaint.

What's tricky is that these courses don't always perfectly align, so you'll have some decisions to make as you choose how to address your individual situation. The best approach is to understand both of those things before you take action. Here are key things to consider.

Understand your company's policies. If your company has an employee handbook, read it, says Martin Levy, president of Human Resources 4U, a human resources consulting firm in La Verne, California. This will ensure that you fully understand how these issues are usually handled by your employer -- what steps your company expects you to take, and how you can ask for help within your organization if you're uncomfortable talking directly to your boss.

Research your legal rights. In addition to understanding how your company treats complaints, it's important to know what your rights and responsibilities are under the law. "There are plenty of employers out there who still don't understand the law," Levy says, "so they may think they're following the rules when they aren't."

Getting a full view of your legal protections can be complicated, because there isn't one single law for you to look at. "The laws that protect pregnant employees are a patchwork," says lawyer Tom Spiggle, author of You're Pregnant? You're Fired! Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace.

In fact, what you think is pregnancy discrimination may fall under an entirely different aspect of the law, such as harassment or -- if you've already raised your concerns in the workplace -- retaliation.

Ultimately, Spiggle says, the specific law that applies to your situation matters less than knowing your rights. "The most important thing is to use everything you can to protect yourself." Good places to start your research include the EEOC and the United States Department of Labor. Individual states and cities may offer additional protections.

Get Help. You can also reach out to a lawyer who specializes in employment law, and Spiggle stresses that you don't need to be ready to sue to have a conversation. "A one-hour consultation can really be an important investment in yourself," he says.

A lawyer can help you understand potential pitfalls to avoid (quitting is almost always a bad idea, unless it is part of a severance agreement that adequately compensates you, he says, and there are hard-and-fast deadlines for making claims), and show you how to document your attempts to resolve your issues with your employer.

You can call your local bar association, or find directories of lawyers to check out on sites like National Employment Lawyers Association, NOLO, and AVVO.

Take action. Once you fully understand your situation, you'll likely feel ready to address it. Donna Galatas, CEO of The Galatas Group, a human resources consultancy for small businesses in Frisco, Texas, stresses two keys for handling these pregnancy-related workplace situations: "communication and common sense."

  • Make notes. When something happens, write it down in a diary. Include the date, a brief description of the event, and any additional steps you took in response to what was said or done. These notes can help you see a pattern of behavior, if there is one, and remember exactly who did what when. (It's surprisingly easy to lose details in emotional memories, so this is a critical step.)
  • Try a one-on-one approach. If your issue relates to how an individual is treating you, Galatas advises "starting low" by having a simple conversation before escalating it to managers and human resources. "Give people a chance to improve," she says. "They often don't realize what they're doing, and will stop once they understand."

    You could quietly pull the person aside and say something like, "I really don't like how I feel when you say or do that." Flat-out denial or hostility toward your concerns are warning signs that this approach isn't working, Galatas adds, and might mean it's time to consider raising the issue with a trusted manager or the HR department.

  • Ask questions. If the situation at your workplace involves work assignments, meetings, or opportunities to advance, Spiggle says, always ask why things are being handled in the way they are, and consider whether the explanation you're given makes sense.

    "If, for example, they say your job has been eliminated, but they then hire someone else, that's a real issue," Spiggle says. But there may be a reasonable explanation for a change -- you're no longer scheduled to making a presentation because it's after your due date, for instance.

  • Escalate productively. If you approach your supervisor or human resources department, Galatas says, it helps if you come prepared with a specific explanation of your concerns (those notes will come in handy!) and an idea of the change you'd like to see happen. This will help the manager or human resources representative frame his response to best help you.

    Once you've spoken with the manager or representative, he should begin a formal investigation of the issue you've raised, and keep you apprised (as much as he is legally able) of the steps being taken to resolve it. Ask specifically what the process you will follow will be, and, if you feel this problem isn't being sufficiently addressed, consider taking legal steps.

However you chose to address your issue, the experts agree: Don't wait. The longer you hold off on addressing your pregnancy discrimination concerns, the more difficult it can be to resolve them -- and in the case of filing a claim, waiting too long could make it impossible to take action.

Stress can become more common when you've got a baby on the way, but it shouldn’t be keeping you up at night. See if you need to take it easy.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.

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