Pregnant Veterinary Staff? Follow These HR Rules

What you need to know about pregnancy in the veterinary workspace.

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Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

“It must be in the water!” 

You may have thought this when it seems like everyone in the practice is pregnant at the same time. 

With the veterinary profession being predominantly female, pregnancy is an ongoing issue in our workplaces. While pregnant women are a protected class — legally protected from discrimination — this should not keep us from considering pregnant team members as valuable, contributing parts of our team. 

We also should not be afraid to hold them to a standard of performance. The important thing is to have the right mindset and open up an ongoing conversation with the mother-to-be

It is not uncommon for team members who leave for the birth of their child to choose not to return to work, or at least not to the same practice. How we handle the pregnancy could be a precursor to whether that team member will return after the baby is born.

Many people seem to think that once a woman is pregnant, she no longer can be fired or involuntary terminated. This is not necessarily true. A protected class is not protected from termination but is protected from discrimination on account of the “protected” identifier, such as race, religion, nationality, age, gender, pregnancy and more (depending on state and federal employment laws). 

The Golden Rule is simply this: Treat the pregnant team member as you would any other employee.

If a nonpregnant team member gets in trouble for coming in late to work, then the pregnant team member who arrives late should suffer the same consequence. As with every other employee, conversations about performance should continue to be pursued and documented.  

 But here’s where it gets a little sticky. The pregnant team member may experience pregnancy-related disabilities or work restrictions, which require reasonable accommodations. 

This is no different, though, from any other team member who might experience any other type of disability and require accommodations. In both cases, the disability should be considered in regard to the person’s work duties, and her medical doctor should determine what tasks can no longer be performed for that time period. 

Then it is up to the business to discuss reasonable accommodations. Accommodations could include:

  • Redistributing nonessential functions such as lifting.
  • Adjusting policies to allow more frequent breaks.
  • Purchasing or modifying equipment.
  • Allowing changes in posture: time sitting for those who stand most of the time, and movement for those sitting most of the time.
  • Temporarily reassigning an employee to a light-duty position.

The best way to act is to be proactive. Here are steps to take to ensure your practice is ready.

1. Establish a written policy stating that reasonable accommodations may be available to team members with temporary impairments, including those related to pregnancy. This policy should be included in the disability section of the employee handbook or policy manual, and distributed and reviewed with each new hire. 

2. Make the policy available in writing to every team member so all employees understand the reasonable accommodations that are available. While reviewing the policy with new hires is essential, it may be even more important to regularly review the policy with existing team members because one may become pregnant at any time. 

3. Ensure that managers and supervisors know how to recognize and respond promptly to requests for reasonable accommodations. 

A request is not necessarily a written, formal proposition but can include a casual question by a pregnant team member such as, “Can someone else stock these big bags of food so I don’t have to lift them?” 

The manager should intervene if it becomes clear that the pregnant team member is having difficulty and should ask whether accommodations are necessary. However, a manager should not assume that tasks cannot be continued by the pregnant team member. 

With a job description in hand, the pregnant team member can discuss the essential tasks of the position with her doctor and get advice on what types of accommodations would be appropriate. Then the discussion can proceed at work. An open dialogue is an important part of this process.

4. Train managers and supervisors to understand that the definition of disability is broad and includes pregnancy-related work restrictions. As part of a comprehensive human resources program, anyone managing team members needs to be instructed and reminded that pregnancy is considered a temporary disability in the eyes of employment laws.

5. Have a process in place so accommodations may be considered and implemented quickly upon a team member’s announcement of pregnancy-related disabilities. This would involve the manager informing the pregnant team member that requests can indeed be considered and then moving forward with submitting the request to HR or upper management in a timely fashion.

6. If a team member requests an accommodation that cannot be provided, explain why and discuss possible alternatives. 

Typically the only reason a practice would not have to provide an accommodation is if by providing the accommodation the business would suffer undue hardship. Specific parameters define “undue hardship,” so these decisions should not be made lightly. Seek human resources’ advice before refusing an accommodation.

Besides the workplace accommodations that must be provided, the team should receive sensitivity training to inspire the most respectful response to pregnant team members. 

It is not uncommon for other team members to feel the burden of additional work transferred or removed from the pregnant team member, and this can cause hard feelings. Everyone needs to understand that anyone who experiences a disability of any kind can and should expect the same level of accommodation when he or she has the need, and that could happen to anyone at any time in a team member’s career. 

The same level of compassion is due the disabled co-worker whether she was injured in an accident, suffered a severe illness or became pregnant. No difference in compassion should be shown by the employer and the team.

Resources

  1. HR Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management, September 2014, pg. 12.
  2. HR Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management, February 2014, pg. 23-27.
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