The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) recently ruled on the second of two high-profile pregnancy-related discrimination cases.
Both cases highlight the risks your organisation faces for failing to comply with maternity protection laws.
Pleading ignorance is no defence so if you don’t take the time to understand maternity protection laws, you could face a similar fate.
The employee at the centre of the most recent case began working for her employer in 2012. She took maternity leave from her position as a highly paid marketing director in 2017.
While on maternity leave, her position was filled by Mr Xa, a temporary replacement. Mr Xa continued to take up a role with the company after the claimant returned to work from maternity leave.
On November 1st 2018, the employee told her employer she was pregnant with another child. Two weeks later, she was informed she was being made redundant.
She claimed that her redundancy amounted to discrimination, on the grounds of gender and family status, contrary to the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015.
Existence of prima facie case of discrimination
The Adjudication Officer (AO) confirmed the fact that the employee was pregnant meant a prima facie case of discrimination existed. When a prima facie case of discrimination is established, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to prove that it has not acted in a discriminatory manner.
Failure to follow redundancy procedures
The employer’s defence came into question after it became evident they had failed to follow correct redundancy procedures. The AO pointed out that the employee had received no prior warning of a possible redundancy, and no consultation had taken place.
The employer also failed to consider any alternative position for the employee.
The employer argued that the employee’s pregnancy was not a factor in the decision to make her position redundant.
The employee’s counter-argument was that she was five months pregnant at the time the decisions in relation to redundancy were being made, and clearly “showing”.
Failure to meet the burden of proof
The AO accepted that the company was in serious financial difficulty and noted that the CEO had been instructed to make cuts of up to €10 million.
While it was clear the financial difficulties explained the need for redundancies, it did not explain the employee’s selection for redundancy.
The AO deemed the fact that the employee was highly paid at €94,000, and the company had an expensive maternity scheme in place to be a significant factor.
Because of her salary, the employee would have been a “considerable overhead to be carried in a period of radical financial retrenchment”.
Also, the fact that Mr Xa was not made redundant was a revealing piece of evidence that the employer failed to explain.
Adjudication Officer’s decision
The company’s financial troubles were taken into account but did not amount to good defence.
The employer failed to prove that there was no connection between the employee’s pregnancy and her redundancy.
The AO awarded the employee €50,000 in compensation for pregnancy-related discrimination by her employer. A further €5,000 was awarded for the distress she suffered while attempting to qualify for statutory maternity leave.
Risk of expensive pregnancy-related claims
This ruling shows how discrimination claims can cost your business in both financial and reputational terms.
In August, the WRC also awarded an employee €61,000 after they found she was demoted from her role upon returning from maternity leave.
As mentioned earlier, these cases underline the importance of understanding maternity protection laws.
To guarantee you understand your obligations as an employer, speak to a HR expert on 01 886 0350. You can also fill in a contact form to receive a callback.