Can I be denied a promotion because I'm caring for my parent?

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Question:

My mother died about a year ago, and my father recently moved in with my family. I took vacation time to help him put their home on the market and move in with us; now that he has settled in, he has been a huge help to us. He spends time with the kids after school, makes dinner once or twice a week, and helps out with errands that are hard to get done when you work full time, like taking the car in for service. We love having him here, and he is enjoying being part of a noisy family household again. 

The only thing that isn't working out is my job. When I took time off to help my dad move, my boss told me I shouldn't bring him to live with my family. She said, "he may seem fine now, but in a few years you'll be spending all of your time taking care of him." I didn't think much of it at the time, but she recently told me not to bother applying for a promotion I've had my eye on for months. The position would require more travel, among other things, and she said she didn't think it was fair to expect me to fly off at a moment's notice, given my "responsibilities at home." Is this legal? 

Answer:

It sounds like your boss has made some unwarranted assumptions about you based on your family life. This is sometimes referred to as "caregiver discrimination": treating an employee differently because of his or her responsibilities to care for others, whether children, parents, or other family members. 

Discrimination against caregivers isn't illegal per se. Caregiving responsibilities aren't a protected category, like race, gender, or disability. In some situations, an employer might be justified in making decisions based on an employee's obligations to care for others. For example, if an employee has used up all of his time off, and continues to miss work because of childcare problems, the employer could discipline or fire the employee for poor attendance. The employee is in a tough spot, but ultimately the employer doesn't have to keep someone on who can't do the job, for whatever reason. 

If, however, the employer's decision is based on a protected trait, the situation changes. Often, in caregiving situations, gender-based stereotypes come into play. For example, what if female employees who missed work due to childcare problems were not fired, but male employees were? The employer might be making a gender-based assumption that it was acceptable for women to put their families first, but not for men. This would be illegal discrimination.

In your situation, the issue is not so clear cut. It sounds like your father has actually allowed you to devote more time and energy to your job; in other words, your "caregiving responsibilities" haven't affect your work at all, beyond your initial time off. However, your boss is making a different assumption, both about how much time you are actually spending caring for your father and about how you will prioritize your life in the future. This assumption could well be based on the gender stereotypes that women are more likely to put family ahead of their jobs, to take on caregiving roles in the family, and so on. 

Whether or not you are facing discrimination, however, you are certainly looking at an unfair situation. Your boss may not be aware that she is making assumptions about you. So, your first step should be to meet with her and explain the facts. Tell her that your father is active and helping your family, that you are fully able to travel and perform the other duties associated with the promotion, and that you very much want to be considered for the job. Be frank about your concern that she is judging your ability to do your job based on inaccurate assumptions she is making about you and your family life. Ask her to consider you for the promotion based solely on your job performance and skills. 

This conversation may be all you need to get back on track. Hopefully, your boss didn't realize the extent to which she was making assumptions about you and judging you unfairly. But if you don't succeed in convincing her to reconsider, it might be time to go to your company's HR department and make a complaint. Whether or not your boss is actually engaged in illegal discrimination, your company has a strong interest in considering employees for promotion on their merits, not on the basis of unfounded assumptions or stereotypes. 

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