The Equality Act of 2010 legislates against pregnancy or maternity discrimination in the workplace, which means if an employee believes that an employer has treated them unfairly due to being pregnant, or having given birth, they can take legal action against a company at an employment tribunal. Significantly, pregnancy discrimination can apply up to 26 weeks after someone has given birth. It’s also unlawful to treat someone unfairly because they are breastfeeding.
A landmark case in employment law
The consequences can be serious for businesses that fall foul of the law. Take the recent case of an agency worker that was awarded in excess of £22k in damages when hired by the London Borough of Waltham Forest as a sponsorship officer. Miss Dowokpor was given an initial contract of three months, which was then extended. However, when offered a job by a different organisation on a two-year contract, Miss Dowokpor was asked to stay on at the London Borough and informed by email that she would be offered a one-year contract to last until March 2018.
Problems arose when she told her manager that she was pregnant in October 2017. He subsequently sought advice from the organisation’s HR department about terminating her contract, and in November, told her, due to budget cuts, the role was frozen and her contract would terminate. At that meeting, she was also told that she had done a good job, but the manager then sent a letter to the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) suggesting that bad performance was the reason behind her dismissal.
Companies face big compensation payments for pregnancy discrimination
At the subsequent hearing, the employment judge ruled that Dowokpor had been subject to pregnancy discrimination and awarded her £11.9k for loss of agency fees, along with a further £12.5k for injury to feelings.
While the recruitment agency, in this case, was not held liable, it demonstrates how important it is for companies and recruitment agencies to put policies in place to ensure they don’t fall foul of the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to pregnancy discrimination – especially as business minister, Margot James, has said there should be ‘zero tolerance’ when it comes to issues of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
Avoiding employment tribunals and pay-outs
Companies can start by creating an official company policy that affirms equal treatment for employees who are pregnant and ensure that interviewers and managers act in accordance with that policy, as well as current legislation. Given the government stance, it’s important for HR personnel to stay up-to-date with any changes to the law and relay those changes to managers throughout the organisation.
Companies should be aware, for example, that other legislation goes beyond maternity discrimination. Health and safety laws state that employers must provide a private, hygienic and safe place for breastfeeding mothers to feed their babies, express milk and rest. This law states that toilets are not acceptable for breastfeeding.
Staff should be given official guidelines on what to do if they feel that they experienced discrimination and how the company will act on such claims. Additionally, records should be kept on any instances of discrimination, including what action was taken to follow up claims. Taking steps to avoid pregnancy discrimination in the workplace isn’t just good for workers, it’s good for the company too.