Tom Spiggle’s book, ‘You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired! Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace,’ discusses discrimination at work.
We all know you can’t get fired for being pregnant, but can you be fired for requesting more water breaks? How about for taking time off to care for your sick child? And is it really not illegal to be fired just because you came in late one day?
In You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired! Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace, employment lawyer and father of four, Tom Spiggle, explains how we can navigate our way through a hostile work environment. He shows us the difference between “disapproval” and “discrimination,” telling us when to head to the courthouse and when to cut your losses.
Many people are reluctant to come forward when they have experienced discrimination in the workplace. Why do you think that is?
There are a number of reasons. A lot of people don’t know the law, and that’s because the law is indeed very confusing. Most people can understand straight-out discrimination—literally being told, “You’re pregnant? You’re fired!” for example—but wading through pages and pages of legalese can be intimidating. Even highly educated people aren’t up to date on the relevant laws.
Another reason is the fear of being labeled as someone who sues. This isn’t a frivolous consideration. This is real, but it is overblown in people’s minds. Many of the first steps that you take—hiring a lawyer to write a letter, for example—are not even public record. And, honestly, a lot of companies don’t want to be tarred as a company that discriminates.
What is the result for the rest of us when people do not pursue legal action?
If the person who has been discriminated against decides not to raise the issue at work and leaves the company, it denies the company a chance to correct things, and it lost a loyal, hard-working employee. This could affect the company’s reputation and bottom line.
Another result is that a bad manager becomes emboldened because he or she gets away with that behavior. In a company culture where this is a problem, the only way forward is to affect its bottom line. The more you push back, the more the company has to pay its corporate lawyer, and the more likely it will be forced into finding an equitable solution.
You write that many employees actually feel that they have let the company down when they are pregnant or need time off. Can you explain that?
Yes, it makes them feel guilty. In many cases, the woman knows her boss really well. When he cuts her sales territory because she “shouldn’t travel in her condition,” it costs her hundreds of thousands of dollars—but she still feels like she’s let him down. In cases like this, the company is treating the employee like a cog in a wheel.
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What are the first three things an employee should do if he believes he has been the victim of discrimination at work?
First, go see a lawyer. Many do free initial consultations, and you will need some guidance on how to approach human resources. Then, go ahead and raise the issue, even if you think it will put cross hairs on your back. Let’s face it. If it’s that kind of company, that’ll happen eventually anyway. Filing a complaint with HR can give you a legal advantage. Most companies will try to buy you out—cheap—to waive your claim. Don’t sign anything. As soon as you sign, it’s game over, no matter how much of a case you have. These companies have lawyers on retainers figuring out what they can get away with. If you go in as a nice guy, you’ll be taken advantage of.
Why does the perception of “baby brain” continue after it has been proven that a woman’s brain becomes sharper as her body prepares to give birth?
Clearly some people still think that pregnant women are less competent and/or distracted. While few managers would come out and say, “We can’t have you on this new account with your baby brain,” the attitude is alive and well.
It is unlawful to ascribe things to a pregnant worker that a manager would not ascribe to other workers. For example, firing a pregnant woman for coming in late because she’s tired while giving other late-arriving workers a pass is illegal.
You note that a man’s resume indicating that he has children is more likely to get a job interview than if that same resume belonged to a woman. What can be done to balance that?
We have to keep raising these issues. Companies should not get away with it. A bright spot is that millennial men don’t view things the same way as their fathers. They want the flexibility to stay home with their children. So as millennials move up into management positions, there will be less of this kind of thing.
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As a result of your work advocating for those who’ve been discriminated against in the workplace, do you have any comments on how we as a society can fix many of the issues?
We need public policy that supports work flexibility. Pregnant workers, parents with young kids, even non-parents—they all need time off. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t offer any paid leave. The FMLA is the only federal law that requires leave of any type, and it’s not paid. No one can afford that. We would work better with eight weeks of vacation, or vacation time that an employee can actually take.
President Obama mandated recently that federal contractors must offer a certain amount of paid sick leave days, but right now companies are not required to offer paid sick leave, paid leave, or flexible work schedules that would in fact all help improve the work force. We would still be better off as a country if we had these policies. Most people want to work. Most people want to pay their mortgage.
Who did you write this book for?
Anyone who is in a bad place at work. Workers who are pregnant, sick, or are caring for a loved one are particularly vulnerable. People who hire lawyers are not “whiners.” If you just “suck it up,” the company wins. I like justice.
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