Can I be denied a job because I'm pregnant?

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Question:

I got through several rounds of the hiring process to manage the quality assurance team of a major software company. The team is international, and the job requires about a week of travel every couple of months. At my call-back interview, I informed the interview panel that I'm pregnant. I'm only four months along, but I wanted to be up front with them and make sure there were no misunderstandings. They asked me some questions about my ability to fly and willingness to leave home; I assured them that I was planning only a short parental leave, that my husband stays home with our children, and that I should be able to travel without complications. 

Shortly after this interview, they turned me down for the job. They said I had strong complications, but they wanted someone who would be ready to go "from day one." Is this pregnancy discrimination? 

Answer:

It certainly could be pregnancy discrimination. Federal law and the laws of most states prohibit employers from making job decisions based on pregnancy. As in many areas of law, however, what the law requires is often quite different from what happens in the real world. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! was famously hired while pregnant. At lower-profile companies and for lower-level positions, however, women have quite a different experience. Plenty of women have reported a potential employer losing interest once her pregnancy is revealed (or becomes apparent).

If you search the Internet, you will find some giving advice not to reveal your pregnancy, even when it's physically obvious. This doesn't seem like a sound strategy, however. After all, your goal is to get a job with the company, where the people who hired you will be your managers and colleagues. To start the relationship off dishonestly might not work to your advantage in the long-term. 

Some employers believe -- mistakenly -- that they are entitled to make hiring decisions based on pregnancy, because pregnancy leads to parental leave, which will cost the company time and money. However, this belief is erroneous. Whether or not there's an economic impact, employers may not decide who to hire based on pregnancy. After all, you may, like Mayer reportedly did, take only a couple of weeks of working maternity leave, then build a nursery next to your office so you won't have to miss a beat while tending to your baby. The whole point of laws prohibiting discrimination is that employers may not make assumptions, based on stereotypes or bias, about how real people are going to act. 

Unless there's some non-pregnancy reason for your employer's comment, it sounds like the company implied that it was disqualifying you from consideration because you are pregnant. If the company's decision was based on your pregnancy, that's illegal. The question is, what should you do about it? 

You have several options. If you are ready to put the litigation pedal to the metal, you can file a charge of discrimination at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state's anti-discrimination agency. This is a necessary prerequisite if you want to file a lawsuit, and the agency may investigate your claim and try to settle it. Keep in mind, however, that you will be facing an uphill battle. You will have to prove that your prospective employer made its decision because you were pregnant. If there were other qualified candidates, and the employer can come up with a plausible explanation for its comment (for example, that it hired a candidate who had held a similar job for years and could really hit the ground running), you may not get far. 

Another option is to hire a lawyer to send a "demand letter" to the company, laying out the facts of your claim and asking the company to settle with you. Of course, you'll need to find a lawyer willing to take the case. This option gives you a chance to go over the facts with a legal pro, who can give you an honest assessment of the strength of your claim. Like filing a charge, however, this option takes you further away from your job prospects, both because you will be spending time on your legal claim rather than your job search, and because the target of your claim isn't likely to become your next employer. 

Or, you could simply take things into your own hands and contact the company on your own. You could write a letter or send an email to the hiring committee, letting them know that you are concerned that you may have been turned down because of your pregnancy, which is illegal. You might ask for more detail about the reasons why you were rejected. If the company really didn't know its legal obligations, this will give it an opportunity to correct the error. If the company's decision was based on something other than your pregnancy, this will give them a chance to explain. And, if the company intentionally discriminated against you, you might gather evidence that will help your legal claim. 

Ultimately, you'll have to decide whether it's worth your time, money, and effort to pursue the company, or whether you'd rather leave this dispute behind and continue with your job search. 

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