A recent submission to “Workaholic,” the New York Times career advice blog, highlighted a dilemma that may be familiar to many pregnant workers out there. The anonymous advice-seeker asked the following:
“Last December, I applied for a position at a big technology firm. The description indicated that the job was based at its California headquarters. I live in another state, but the company also has a large campus nearby. Initially, while negotiating an offer, we were unable to agree on relocation terms. Six months later, though, when the position had not been filled, a hiring manager indicated that the company was now willing to consider allowing me to work at its campus in my current city, and travel as needed. One thing had changed — I was four months pregnant. After some contemplation, I told the hiring manager I was interested, and disclosed my pregnancy. He was congratulatory and said he would discuss the relocation issue with management. I was hopeful based on his communications. But to my disappointment, he later informed me that management felt strongly that the position needed to be based at headquarters. What happened? Everything seemed to be on track until I mentioned my pregnancy. Should I have withheld this information?”
In response, “The Workologist” columnist Rob Walker explained that federal law explicitly forbids workplace discrimination based on pregnancy or parenthood status “when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring.” This is specified by rules of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The problem with this employment dispute, however, is it’s hard to say whether the company decided to withdraw the offer because of the pregnancy. And this gets to one of the thorniest parts of the worker’s question: while the law may be clear, the hiring process and job negotiations are much less clear-cut.
“It’s often hard to know why you’re not hired. You don’t have perfect information,” said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president of the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. “And that can be a reason not to disclose a pregnancy in an initial stage of the conversation, because it shouldn’t be relevant to the employer’s decision.”
What’s more, even hiring executives who understand and respect the law may harbor unconscious biases about pregnant applicants — which presents another reason to wait to disclose your status until the negotiation picture is more clear. (We should remember, however, that depending on the stage of a woman’s pregnancy, “disclosure” might be a moot point for someone going through in-person interviews).
The fact that several ambiguities still remained in this situation further confuses the terms. The Workologist advice column gets questions from many job seekers who felt confident about an offer after the employer stated that all was going well — until negotiations suddenly went dead with no explanation. So in the case of the worker seeking feedback above: it might have been better to wait to disclose the pregnancy until after management made an explicit commitment to okaying the relocation issue.
Still, the candidate’s actions seem understandable here. While there’s nothing illegal or technically misleading about waiting until after accepting an offer (or starting a new job) to tell employers about your pregnancy, the timing of that disclosure can be a very personal decision, said Peggy Mastroianni, head of the E.E.O.C.’s Office of Legal Counsel. “If you’re being offered your dream job, and you really want things to go well” after you get it, she says, “then you might be inclined to say, ‘I am pregnant and I’ll be taking some time off’” fairly early in the process. This minimizing the sense of resentment from managers who might have to scramble to cover you during leave. Ideally, sorting out those details in advance can help ensure that everyone involved in the negotiations have their expectations met over the long term.
The manner of disclosing a pregnancy matters, too. If you plan to take a year of leave after your baby is born, a potential employer may not be able to accommodate that. (Details will vary by both state and employer.) However, if you have clarified that, pregnancy notwithstanding, you “intend to make the commitment the job would require,” Ms. Martin said, both sides can move forward in good faith.