Laid Off and Pregnant: Is There Any Recourse?

It's illegal to fire someone because she's pregnant, but it's not illegal to fire a pregnant woman.

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Suzanne Lucas

I found out that my job was considered "redundant" and that I would be terminated at the end of August. I started this job months ago, which involved me paying for my own relocation. I am the only woman in my group and the newest hired. I just found out that I am pregnant. I have not told my boss. Do you think I should tell her? Would it save my job? Also, they are interviewing for my position, which makes it seem like it's not really redundant.

First things first: No one knew about your pregnancy. It played no role in the decision to terminate. Feel free to tell your boss (congratulations, by the way), but don't expect it to save your job. It shouldn't. Pregnancy doesn't protect you from termination. It's illegal to fire someone because she's pregnant, but it's not illegal to fire a pregnant woman.

[See what to do when a dream job isn't.]

Now, about the designation of your position as "redundant" combined with actively interviewing replacements for you. There could be several things going on here:

  • Your position is not redundant at all, but you aren't performing up to expectations. Rather than terminating you for poor performance, they are labeling it a layoff. This is to make it easier for you to obtain unemployment benefits, get a new job (no uncomfortable explanation about poor performance being the reason for termination), and to explain it your friends and family. (Layoffs are very common right now.)
  • The position they thought they needed (the job they hired you for), and the position they really needed are two very different things. They are terminating you and seeking to hire someone to perform a different function.
  • There are personality or cultural conflicts going on. If you haven't meshed well with the team, they may be terminating you in order to find someone who is a better fit.

[See why your coworkers may not be the problem.]

It's perfectly legal in the United States to terminate almost any employee for cause, or no cause. As I said earlier, the pregnancy is irrelevant to the business decision. If you are set on arguing that it's discrimination because you are the only female in the group, keep in mind the following:

  • Last in/first out is a very standard method of determining which employees to layoff
  • It's very difficult to argue that the same person who hired you (obviously knowing you were female) is now firing you because you are female.
  • Being the only male/female/black/Hispanic/white/gay/Christian/whatever in your group doesn't protect you from being terminated.

So, what should you do? First of all, make an appointment with your boss—a real, scheduled, sit-down appointment. (Don't grab him in the hallway and say, "we need to talk!") When you sit down together, discuss the fact that you paid for your own relocation. It is not unreasonable to ask for compensation for that, given the circumstances. You could argue (and you should) that since this is a "redundant" position, they should have realized that 4½ months ago and not hired you in the first place. Don't mention that you know they are recruiting and suspect that the position is not redundant at all. Why? Because your argument is much stronger if you argue from a position that he should have known the position would be irrelevant in only a few months. If they offer you some severance, expect to be asked to sign a general release.

Second, ask for an evaluation of your work. This isn't to save your job, but to help you identify any potential problems that you could fix for your next job. Even in a true position elimination, there was a reason you were chosen over someone else. (Keep in mind: That reason could be last in/first out, or something similar that doesn't relate to you as a person.) But, if there is something you could fix, fix it.

[See how to survive sabotage and save your job.]

Third, ask for a reference. Clarify what he will say to a potential employer. Again, if your performance has been an issue, this is the time to negotiate the reference. Just hoping that he'll be positive isn't good enough.

Fourth, set your sights on a new job. It's very doubtful you could win this one back. If it's a large enough company, there may be a place for you in another group. Go ahead and look, but don't place all your eggs in that basket. Unfortunately, it's back to the job hunt.

Getting laid off can be devastating, whether you're pregnant or not. The worst thing to do is let that overwhelm you and make you feel helpless. Keep reminding yourself that there are numerous companies out there and that many of them would love to have you as an employee. Then work your hardest to find those companies.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.