From the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

Shifting attitudes toward company loyalty and having a balanced life, especially among the younger work force, are making pregnancy and maternity leave issues a hot topic for business owners. And with female and male employees expanding their families, they're watching how you respond to the issue. Your actions can either help retain employees, or create misunderstandings and legal tangles that drain the business's finances and productivity.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a 26 percent increase in pregnancy discrimination claims from 1996 to 2002. However, there's no way of knowing how many instances have really occurred, says Deborah Weinstein, employment and business law lecturer at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and lawyer for Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLCin Philadelphia. While the employees who are able to file lawsuits usually don't make it to trial, and lawsuits are typically dismissed or settled, Weinstein cautions, "once a plaintiff gets to trial, [there's] a very good chance of winning."

Advising business's HR departments, in-house attorneys and owners on risk control, Weinstein confirms pregnancy and maternity concerns are the most frequently asked questions. Weinstein suggests the following:

  • Don't make assumptions about an employee's intentions or ability because of pregnancy.
  • Discuss her needs, schedule and plans before taking action.
  • Assess what effect this will have on the business, and let her know if her requests can be accommodated.
  • If there needs to be a job action such as termination due to performance unrelated to pregnancy, do not do it the day you learn of her pregnancy.

The advice also applies to men, who are entitled to paternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Weinstein notes serial leave, where one parent takes time off consecutively followed by the other, as the trend of the future. Whether FMLA or any other law applies to your business depends on the number of employees as well as state-specific laws (check your state employment/labor Web site for more information). And when in doubt, be safe and call a legal professional for advice.