Blogs and other media geared toward an audience of pregnant women and first-time moms tend to make the general assumption that working moms are employees. But what if you’re the boss? If you run a business and have employees on your payroll, particularly if you are a small business owner or have just made your first hire, you may not have considered how your business and workplace may be impacted when an employee—or you—become a mom. Here are a few concepts you should keep in mind when it comes to hiring, managing, and (yes, unfortunately) firing:
It is generally illegal, not to mention a terrible idea, to make employment decisions based on a person’s sex, marital status, or status as a parent or parent-to-be.
What may seem like an obvious statement is not always the case in actual practice. Asking an applicant during an interview whether she (or he) has children or plans to have them in the future is a huge no-no. But what if a key employee announces she is pregnant, and you know her due date will fall during a crucial period when a huge project is due?
It’s not necessarily discrimination to use what information is made available to you to make strategic decisions for the good of your business. Once you know when a pregnant employee is expected to take leave, it is fair game to plan for her work to be covered, especially for major projects with deadlines that you know she will not be available to meet. But it is a problem to assume that an employee will be completely unhelpful to you during her pregnancy, or once baby comes along, or that a pregnant job applicant won’t be up for the task, despite her credentials and references indicating otherwise. If you are notified that a particular situation may impact an employee’s performance or her availability for her usual job duties, start the conversation with that employee, clearly stating company policy, and inform her of her options.
Formal written, consistently applied policies and documentation are key to avoiding discrimination complaints.
In my past life as an employment law attorney, you don’t know how many times I banged my head against the wall when a client told me that “we, um, don’t really have a policy on that” . . . after a legal problem arose. Take some time to develop an employee handbook, in hard copy or electronic form, that sets forth the rules and procedures for your workplace, business operations, HR systems and employee conduct. All of this stuff is interrelated. If someone claims entitlement to leave under FMLA, and you have a separate policy discussing sick leave (paid or unpaid), you will want to be sure that your policy is simpatico with what the law requires—you can grant additional rights and protections beyond the legal basics, but you can never use company policy to skirt requirements imposed by state or federal statute.
While you’re at it, you should write and post an affirmative action policy/equal employment opportunity statement, stating that your company seeks to promote diversity and does not tolerate illegal discrimination in conducting its business or making employment decisions of any kind. Note that sexual harassment, and harassment based on any status protected by law, may be considered discrimination by the company if it goes unchecked, particularly where there is no policy in place for the filing, investigation, and resolution of employee complaints of discriminatory harassment. And when a complaint or concern does arise, you need to be documenting who is saying what and how the situation is being handled—every step of the way.
Be friendly with your team, but keep it professional.
I know I will get the eyeroll here. Of course I’m keeping it professional, who do you take me for? Well ladies, I only say this because I have been there. Women often seek out the friendship of other women in the office, and this seems to be even more true for fellow moms—solidarity! If you are a role model for your young female staff by being publicly pregnant on the job, or delegating your management duties while taking time with your newborn (good for you!), you may find that these women will naturally gravitate toward you for mentorship and advice. That’s fine, as long as you don’t put yourself in a position to receive too much information about someone’s pregnancy plans, or their fears about keeping her job after a baby comes, or their complaints that so-and-so is not pulling her weight anymore since returning from leave.
Close friendships between the boss and her employee can cause awkwardness and tension later when an employee needs to be reprimanded or terminated—even if the reasons have nothing to do with information shared in the context of that friendship. Letting things slide is another disaster waiting to happen. If you require everyone to be in the door at 9:00 a.m., but you regularly let your best employee scoot in at 9:10, you are going to be in trouble later when you try to enforce the policy. If the reason she gets there at 9:10 is because she has early morning doctor visits related to a pregnancy or some other condition, that’s fine—but you had that discussion with her beforehand and can show in her file where that’s documented as excused tardiness for medical reasons consistent with your policies—right?
Are you a mompreneur who has had to manage employees juggling work and family? What advice would you give to a business owner or manager in these situations?