For many women falling pregnant is supposed to be one of the happiest times of their life, but yet, according to statistics, an increasing number of pregnant women appear to be finding themselves subject to discriminatory conduct at the hands of their employers.
The upwards trend is somewhat worrying and compounded by the fact that so-called 'equal opportunities' employers are still getting it wrong.
In a recent high profile case, leading UK city law firm, Travers Smith, has just failed in its attempt to defend a pregnancy discrimination claim issued against it by a former Trainee Solicitor. The London Central Employment Tribunal upheld the claimant's allegations that her pregnancy was indeed "the effective cause" of the firm's decision not to offer her permanent employment upon completion of her training, and awarded her significant compensation.
Here, the trainee was nearing the completion of her two-year training contract with the firm when she announced her pregnancy. Some of us would immediately question why she chose not to wait until after her qualification as a lawyer (particularly when it was only a few weeks away) to make the announcement. However, based on her exceptional performance as a trainee over the past two years, there was no reason for her to suspect that she would not be offered a permanent role with the firm on qualification as a solicitor.
Instead, she claimed that once her pregnancy was announced the entire attitude of the firm changed towards her. In particular, she alleged during the hearing that there was a stark contrast in terms of how she was supervised and acknowledged by various partners before the announcement of her pregnancy, and how she was treated and regarded by others once the announcement was made. She alleged that her level of work seemed to tail off to the point that she ceased to be busy with often very little to do, and that partners seemed to stop bothering with her.
In its defence, Travers Smith relied on witness testimony from the Managing Partner and the Training Supervisor which claimed that the firm was wholly committed to diversity and equal opportunities. It argued that the reason for failing to offer her a permanent role on qualification was due to issues concerning performance, yet, these issues (if true) had never been directly addressed with her and she had always been led to believe that her performance was second to none. Therefore, to suggest that poor performance was the route cause for its decision not to offer permanent employment was nonsense.
The Tribunal had no hesitation in ruling that the Trainee Solicitor had been unfairly dismissed on the grounds of pregnancy discrimination, and went further to suggest that the firm had contrived a situation to specifically avoid employing her going forward. The firm was aware of her pregnancy when it decided not to offer her future employment and deliberately failed to make proper enquiries as to why she would not be retained in the future, despite her exemplary record.
In a slight dressing-down for the firm, the Tribunal directed that all partners and senior management staff at Travers Smith be required to participate in discrimination training which should be regularly monitored.
The Tribunal also advised the firm to draft formal documentation to include a transparent process for candidate selection upon qualification, and allow candidates the opportunity to provide feedback in the event of an unsuccessful application. In addition, the firm should also draft a clearly defined grievance procedure which would allow staff to raise discrimination issues (or any other grievance) internally without the fear of being prejudiced.
The firm expressed its utter disappointment at the ruling but has vowed to "take on board the lessons to be learned" and claims to be determined to do everything it possibly can to ensure that its staff are all treated equally. We can only hope that Travers Smith does indeed take on board the recommendations; since this ruling it has come to light that the firm had previously been subject to two earlier complaints relating to pregnancy and discrimination in 2009.
This latest decision is relevant for any employer; it sends a strong message that the rights of pregnant women in the workplace must be respected, whatever the nature of the work and whatever the status of the employee. Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where an employee announces her pregnancy and you are not sure how to handle the situation, please seek the necessary employment advice before embarking on any course of action. Remember, discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy is unlawful and will not be tolerated.
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