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Pregnancy at Work

Anybody who has experience of working in HR knows that pregnant employees are one of the most protected groups in employment law. As soon as an employee becomes pregnant, she enters into a “protected period” until she returns to work after maternity leave. This means that if she receives unfavourable treatment in relation to her maternity leave or pregnancy, then the employer could face claims of unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

The recent case of Kate Torpey has been circulating in the media recently, after she alleged that her employer, Robson Webster Holdings – which owns the fashion labels Jigsaw and Kew – prevented her promotion to CFO after she announced that she was pregnant. Unsurprisingly, the group’s CEO John Robinson disputes these claims entirely.

Ms Torpey was employed as a financial control assistant in 1997, and was promoted to the role of director in 2003 and a year later was made managing director of Kew. Ms Torpey alleges that Mr Robinson made comments about the detrimental affect a second child would have on her abilities to carry out her role. According to Ms Torpey, Mr Robinson “proudly boasted” in front of her that his wife had returned to work within days of giving birth which made her feel uncomfortable at having the full 52 weeks’ maternity leave. Although she was reappointed as director on her return to work, she announced her third pregnancy soon after. She alleged that a fellow director had commented that this situation was not “ideal” and she was signed off work sick with stress in November 2011. A month later she resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal, claiming that she had been subjected to direct sex discrimination and pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

The tribunal found, among a number of other things, that Mr Robinson had sent Ms Topey an email in November 2010, stating that he had lost confidence in her and that her “main aim was to have children”. The tribunal is still continuing and a verdict is expected soon.

Anybody who’s clued up on the rights of pregnant employees knows that somebody returning from maternity leave has the right to return to the same job (or an equivalent position) and/ or request flexible working. Requests can only be refused on statutory grounds, and any such request should be properly considered and a statutory procedure followed. Failure to do so may leave you liable to a sex discrimination claim, especially if you don’t have a good and evidenced business reason for refusing.

To avoid falling into the trap of sex, pregnancy or maternity discrimination, make sure you operate in a compliant and fully considered fashion.

  • Train your managers so that they know about the employment rights of employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave and ensure they follow non-discriminatory processes.
  • Ensure that you keep in contact with employees on maternity leave and keep them informed of promotion opportunities, vacancies and any training opportunities.
  • Allow employees returning from maternity leave come back to the same role.
  • Make sure that you consider any job share request or flexible working arrangement with an open mind. If you have to refuse, make sure that you have a proper and evidenced business reason for doing so.

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