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Rethinking Workplace Pregnancy Discussions

By Joseph M. Yaffe • April 8, 2013

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP is proud to partner with Lean In and be a part of the Lean In global community. The publication of Lean In has spurred meaningful discussion of workplace strategies to foster support and promotion of women in the workplace. As a global law firm representing thousands of businesses across the world, we participate in those discussions with our clients daily, including as they seek advice on compliance with workplace discrimination rules. Those discussions create an opportunity to consider how best to optimize companies’ legal compliance while creating a supportive environment for women that fosters openness of communication. In particular, the subject of workplace pregnancy discussions is one that we believe warrants rethinking.

We have discussed our views on this topic in the Wall Street Journal. With the premise that managers and employers at well-run companies care about the issues that are important to their employees’ professional decisions, we describe a workable approach to tackling issues relating to gender in the workplace.

Managers and employers should be able to engage in meaningful, supportive discussions with their employees about real-world issues such as pregnancy and child rearing, and at the same time avoid offensive, discriminatory or unlawful conduct. Women should feel free to engage in these discussions as well, without fear of sending the “wrong” message about their commitment to their job. Fear of non-compliance with laws intended to protect women in the workplace should not prevent employees and their managers from discussing important and personal issues.

It is good management to take positive steps to encourage pregnant women to remain in the workforce, and to provide them enough flexibility to retain them in their current position. Managers should be comfortable with an “open-door” policy for employees to discuss any issues or concerns.  Managers and employers can and should feel free to invite an employee who has expressed an interest in talking – whether about pregnancy or any other issue – for a discussion over coffee or lunch about what’s on her mind. Questions about integrating pregnancy and/or child rearing with an employee’s career goals should be openly addressed, and managers should not hesitate to let an employee know that he or she is there to discuss them, if the employee ever wants to talk.

Of course, it is never okay to indicate or imply that pregnancy or child rearing will have an adverse impact on someone’s career or their opportunities for progression (which they should not).  Likewise, it is important for employers to be sensitive to employee’ privacy concerns. Some employees may not want to discuss these issues and employers should understand that, with the goal of being supportive, not intrusive.

Like many other legal compliance issues, the best path is the one that understands and addresses an employer’s legal obligations while propelling the employer’s business needs forward.

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