An Employment Tribunal has once again shown employers the serious consequences of pregnancy discrimination by awarding an employee more than £19,000.

What is pregnancy and maternity discrimination?

Under the Equality Act, pregnancy and maternity discrimination is when an employer treats an employee unfavourably due to:

  • pregnancy;
  • suffering illness resulting from pregnancy; or
  • being on compulsory maternity leave or exercising their right to maternity leave.

If an employee is dismissed because of their pregnancy, the dismissal is both direct pregnancy discrimination and automatically unfair.

The case

A receptionist worked for a law firm for 4 years before getting pregnant. She informed her boss, explaining that she was suffering severe sickness as a result and may need time off. Up to this point, it was clear that they had a good working relationship and that he was fully satisfied with her work.

Soon after this, she became too ill to go to work. She sent her boss text messages to let him know, but received no response. She then tried to call him, but he didn't accept any of her calls.

When her husband went into the office to hand over sick notes and other medical evidence, the boss was rude, refused to accept the documents and said she 'was no longer needed'.

The receptionist took the firm to an Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and pregnancy discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal

The tribunal concluded that the receptionist was summarily dismissed (i.e. sacked immediately, without notice or a proper process). They also concluded this happened because of her pregnancy. The dismissal was therefore both unfair and discriminatory.

The tribunal gave the following reasons:

  • There were no problems with the employment relationship before the pregnancy.
  • Her boss's attitude became 'hostile and uncooperative without explanation' after she became pregnant.
  • The firm took none of the usual steps when an employee becomes pregnant, such as seeking information about the due date and proposed maternity leave, or arranging for a pregnancy risk assessment.

Consequently, it was clear that the firm had no intention of employing the receptionist any further once it knew she was having a difficult pregnancy. The tribunal concluded that her extended period of sickness absence and the inevitable maternity leave that would follow was inconvenient to the firm and led to her dismissal.

What this means for you

Pregnancy and maternity are protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

Pregnant employees enjoy this protection from the time they fall pregnant until 2 weeks after the pregnancy or until they return to work from maternity leave (whichever is later).

During this time, you should treat your pregnant employees fairly and not make any unfavourable decisions or actions because of their pregnancy. In particular:

  • As soon as you know of an employee's pregnancy, comply with your legal duties by doing a risk assessment of their working environment. Make any necessary adjustments to allow them to continue to do their job.
  • Take steps to allow them to take the maternity leave they're entitled to.
  • Allow them to exercise their legal right to paid time off during working hours to attend antenatal care.
  • If you plan to dismiss them during this protected period, it must be for a reason unrelated to their pregnancy. Give them written reasons for their dismissal without them needing to ask.