By Robin Madell (San Francisco)
“My wife stayed home when our kids were little.”
“I’m sure you’ll be checking in from home.”
“We need to stick with business attire here.”
These were all comments that Kathy D., Esq., from Indianapolis heard from colleagues during her two pregnancies. And she’s not alone: countless other women find themselves bombarded with unwanted—and sometimes downright rude—questions about their pregnancy once coworkers learn about their condition.
Jennifer Wong, founder and CEO of Alt12, which creates mobile apps for pregnancy, health, and parenting, worked for a corporation when she had her first child. Wong says her announcement was met with a “Congratulations. Now how are you going to get your work done?” attitude.
“The immediate questions were about when exactly I was planning to be gone, what was my coverage plan, and would I be working during the 11 weeks I’d be on maternity leave,” says Wong. “Because I was very career driven and 34 years old when I was pregnant—an age many consider to be ‘old’ to be having kids—I got comments from coworkers like, ‘I never thought you would have kids’ or that I would probably need more time to recover because I’m older. The most annoying comments came from those who assumed I was going to give up my career and not come back after my maternity leave.”
Whether the comments relate to if you’ll return to work, how you’re going to manage juggling everything, or the riskiness of having a child after a certain age, it’s important to know how to address them. On the flip side, if you’re working with pregnant colleagues either as an employee or employer, you should know what kinds of comments and behaviors might land you in hot water or subject you to legal action. Our expert panel provides insight on what to say and what to avoid.
Watch Your Words
Comments that are too personal for a work relationship can lead to awkwardness, resentment, or even legal trouble. From a legal perspective, Kathy D. recommends steering clear of referring to a pregnant woman’s physical appearance, including her weight or the size of her belly. “Avoid: ‘You look like you’re going to pop,’” she advises. “No touching the belly unless invited! And ‘You look tired’ is just as offensive when pregnant as when not.” Wong agrees that certain comments should be shelved whether at work or not, such as, “You look huge!” “No woman finds being ‘huge’ a compliment,” says Wong.
Comments on age at pregnancy and assumptions about work commitment are also to be avoided. “Pregnant women aged 35 and over have expressed annoyance toward colleagues who assume their ‘older age’ means that they put off having kids because of their careers, or that her pregnancy was simply ‘an accident,’ or worse: ‘Congratulations, you must have been trying for a long time!’” says Wong. Other moms resent colleagues’ assumptions that having children will make them less committed. “One colleague actually said to me, ‘Well now that you are going to have a kid, I guess no more working late nights for you,’” shares Wong.
Stacey Usiak, who is a partner in the Employment Law practice of Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt LLP, agrees that it is inappropriate to attempt to delve into a woman’s personal life by making comments such as, “I didn’t know you were trying,” to make any comments about being pregnant or having a baby at the woman’s assumed age (whether old or young in the view of the person making the comment), or to make comments about a woman’s marital status.
“Generalizations should be avoided and civility should be encouraged,” says Usiak. “It is inappropriate to make comments to a pregnant employee implying that she will not be able to keep up with her work while pregnant, or that she will not work as hard after she has the baby.”
Lynne Curry, PhD, who has training as a senior professional in human resources, adds that because federal law (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act) and many state laws protect pregnant employees from discrimination and harassment, any flip or pointed comments may backfire.
“Comments such as, ‘Have you figured out how this happened yet?’ from coworkers or ‘Do you feel you’re up to this project?’ from supervisors may signal to a pregnant employee that coworkers or supervisors aren’t okay with her pregnancy,” says Curry. “Enough of these comments create a hostile environment and can result in a human rights claim. Neutral comments such as, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ fare well.”
Maintain “Business as Usual”
Curry has dealt with pregnancy issues on both sides of the fence—not only as an HR professional, but as a pregnant woman. In the latter case, she explains: “Everyone wanted to talk about their or my pregnancy, and so I had to be the monitor who pulled the discussion back to business/work.”
From an HR perspective, Curry notes that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to treat pregnant employees like any other employee with a medical condition. “Wise employers exercise caution when asking pregnant employees questions—because if they later terminate, discipline, or fail to give a bonus to the employee, the employee may point to those comments as indicating potential discrimination.”
Usiak notes that there should be no comments implying that a woman will be unable to fully perform her job simply because she is pregnant. “If a pregnant employee properly requests a reasonable accommodation, one should be made in the same way it would be made for any other disabled employee,” says Usiak. “However, it should not be assumed to be necessary, and a pregnant employee’s job functions generally should not be restricted or modified without her consent.”
Cultivate a Culture of Support
From her work with the pregnancy and parenting communities, Wong says that expressing genuine support should be the first communication to a pregnant employee. “The biggest complaint I see over and over again is about unsupportive employers and colleagues who immediately show more concern about how the work is going to get done than supporting the employee,” explains Wong. “It builds enormous resentment and places unnecessary stress on both parties.”
To avoid this, Wong recommends that employers start open communication early. “Talk about expectations and coverage plans, but make sure you provide an environment in which the employee feels comfortable expressing her concerns,” says Wong. “In most cases, pregnant employees are already feeling the guilt and burden of leaving colleagues with more work.”
Usiak notes that while it is “near impossible” to control—and at times even illegal to attempt controlling—what colleagues say to each other, upper management can cultivate a culture that is supportive of parents in the workplace. Yet in an effort to foster a respectful workplace, managers should be cognizant of not only the rights of the employee on leave, but also the resulting burdens placed on other employees.
“Managers should take care not to overburden other employees because an employee is on leave, even if this means hiring temporary help to fill gaps,” suggests Usiak. “A company should not merely shift the full workload of an employee on leave to another employee who already has his or her own workload, as this will inevitably breed resentment and possibly lead to retaliation against, or inappropriate comments directly to or about, the employee who is on or returns from maternity leave.”
Employers should also keep in mind that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act strictly prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, and this should be reflected in workplace policies and training—as well as in communication. Usiak recommends: “When an employer or manager is informed by an employee that she is pregnant, an appropriate response would be, ‘Congratulations, I’m very happy for you. When are you due?”