Pregnancy Discrimination

  • Discrimination
Pregnancy Discrimination
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

In this guide, we’ll explain what pregnancy discrimination is, examples, and how to prevent it in the workplace.

It's important that you treat all your employees fairly. Especially employees with protected characteristics, such as pregnant women.

If you or your employees fail to treat everyone equally, you could face discrimination claims. Which could result in an employment tribunal, financial loss for your company, and reputational damage.

In this guide, we'll discuss maternity and pregnancy discrimination, pregnancy rights, and how to prevent discrimination at work.

What is pregnancy and maternity discrimination?

Maternity or pregnancy discrimination is when a person is treated unfairly because they are pregnant.

For the law to consider it unfair treatment or unlawful discrimination, the person must suffer a disadvantage as a result.

What does the law say about pregnancy discrimination?

Whilst there is no set maternity discrimination law, under the Equality Act 2010, being pregnant or on maternity leave is a protected characteristic.

Having this protected characteristic means a person has the right to not receive unfavourable treatment. And ultimately provides pregnant women with workplace maternity rights.

What are the rights of pregnant employees?

As an employer - it's important you are aware of the four main legal rights that pregnant women are entitled to. These include:

  • Paid time off for antenatal care.
  • The four types of maternity leave. These are: ordinary maternity leave, compulsory maternity leave, additional maternity leave and statutory maternity leave.
  • Statutory maternity pay.
  • Protection against unfair treatment.

When does protection against pregnancy and maternity discrimination start?

The protected period against discrimination lasts for a specific period of time - and starts when an individual's pregnancy begins.

The protected period ends when the employee finishes maternity leave. This applies to full time employees, as well as a fixed term contract or agency worker.

If the protected period ends - and your worker feels they are treated worse than their male colleagues - they may still be able to claim sex discrimination.

For example, it could be direct sex discrimination if a female employee is asked to leave the workplace because they are breastfeeding.

What are the different types of discrimination?

To prevent discrimination from happening in your workplace, you should be aware of the types of discrimination your employees could face.

These are:

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when a pregnant worker is treated unfavourably. For instance, an employer decides to discipline a pregnant worker for needing to take breaks to pump. This would be an example of direct discrimination.


Victimisation occurs when an employer treats a staff member unfairly for raising a complaint about discrimination at work.

For example, a pregnant woman could make a formal complaint about their manager's behaviour towards their pregnancy - using their employer's grievance procedure. And if the business denies them a promotion because of this, the law would consider it victimisation.

Causes of pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work

There are several instances where pregnancy and maternity discrimination might occur. And it's important to be aware of all of them. So you can stop it from happening and protect your pregnant employees. And those on maternity leave.

These instances include:

Lack of promotion opportunities and pay rises

Pregnant employees can face discrimination when it comes to promotion opportunities at work. Or any opportunities for their development.

This is when employers overlook or discourage a staff member from applying for a promotion due to pregnancy or maternal leave. This is a prohibited act and an employer found guilty of this would face significant costs.

It may also damage the employer’s brand by leading to negative publicity. As well as having potential knock-on effects for attracting and retaining talented individuals.

Failure to remove Health & Safety risks

Another instance where pregnant employees can face discrimination, is if their employer fails to remove Health & Safety risks at work.

For example, a pregnant worker might reach a point in their pregnancy where they can't perform their role's responsibilities without risking their health. In this instance, the employer should offer suitable alternative work.

If they can't remove the risks, the employer should suspend the staff member on full pay. And if they don’t, they risk breaching the Equality Act.

Changes to a role

Workers may also face pregnancy or maternity discrimination after they have given birth. This is if they return to the same job and changes have been made to their role. According to the law, an employee is entitled to return to the same job during or at the end of 26 weeks.

If they return during or at the end of more than 26 weeks and an employer can show it’s not reasonably practicable for them to return to the same job, they should be offered a suitable alternative vacancy.

For example, a manager who has taken 26 weeks of maternity leave might return to their senior position. But find their responsibilities are that of a more junior worker. And that their workload has changed significantly.

The law could then class this as maternity discrimination if no changes are made.

Unfair dismissal

Another instance where pregnancy and maternity discrimination might occur is unfair dismissal. Under UK law, employers can still dismiss pregnant employees - but it must be a fair and justified process. And not related to their pregnancy or maternity.

For example, an employer could decide to dismiss a pregnant worker because they have had several absences. But if these absences are because of pregnancy related sickness, antenatal appointments and antenatal care, the employee could make a discrimination claim.

This also applies to a situation where an employer may want to make redundancies. Whilst a pregnant employee can be made redundant, it must be a fair process. And the reasons for their redundancy must not be related to their pregnancy.

Consequences of pregnancy discrimination

If there's evidence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination at your workplace, your business could suffer several consequences.

These are:

Employment tribunal claims

One of your staff members can make a claim to an employment tribunal, if they feel you or your team have discriminated against them. The tribunal will then consider if you should be ordered to pay the employee compensation.

This is typically a sum that equates to the financial loss the employee has experienced. The tribunal will also consider a payment for injury to feelings.

Legal costs and financial loss

In the most severe discrimination claims, you could face paying high compensation. Not to mention the legal costs you would need to consider.

As well as this, your business could experience financial loss due to negative publicity. For example, stakeholders might be hesitant to invest in the company because of reputational damage. As a result, it could have a negative impact on your business's services and sales.

Time consuming

In some cases, claims to an employment tribunal can be a time consuming process. And this could negatively impact your company's productivity.

For example, you might have a smaller sized business. And if hit with a discrimination claim - you could end up spending less time than usual running its day to day operations. Ultimately affecting your company's productivity.

Low employee morale

Your business could also suffer from low employee morale because of pregnancy discrimination at work. This is because unfair behaviour to an employee can create a hostile enviroment. Which employees may then withdraw from.

For example, if your staff witness discrimination in your workplace, your business might suffer as a result. This is because some members of your team might feel uncomfortable when collaborating with other employees.

Consequently, they might stop engaging and look for another job. Which could lead to high staff turnover, low employee engagement and poor performance in your company.

How to prevent pregnancy discrimination at work

There are several ways you can prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. As well as creating an environment that supports your pregnant employees those returning from maternity leave.

These include:

Know the law

The first step to preventing pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work is to be aware of the law regarding it. This means being conscious of how you and your employees interact with a worker during their protected period.

It also includes being aware of a pregnant employee’s workplace entitlements. And providing support to them through any pregnancy related illness. Or illness suffered as a result of the birth.

You are not allowed to dismiss an employee because of pregnancy or maternity leave, birth or pregnancy-related sickness. Under the law, this would be considered automatic unfair dismissal and discrimination.

Create an equal opportunities policy

You could also prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination by creating an equal opportunities policy. This policy is a commitment to equality and fairness from yourself, and your management, to employees.

This commitment includes details of practices that will prevent unfair treatment of staff. As well providing information on how employees can promote and endorse a diverse workforce.

Perform a risk assessment

Another way to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination, is to perform a risk assessment of your workplace.

A risk assessment will help you see the risks present in your workplace for pregnant employees. This will help you understand what safety control measures you need to put in place for your employee. And whether you need to provide them with suitable alternative work.

Create a discrimination policy

A discrimination policy will help your staff be aware of what behaviour and language your workplace doesn't allow.

This policy should highlight a zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment and victimisation. As well as providing information that helps your employees understand discrimination and the different forms.

Have frequent meetings with pregnant employees

Another way you can support your pregnant employees is by meeting with them frequently. This should be a private, one-to-one meeting, away from colleagues.

This will provide a dedicated time for your employee to voice any issues they may have. Whilst offering you the chance to listen actively to their concerns. It can also help you to build a better rapport with them, as they will become more comfortable around you after each meeting.

Enforce diversity training

You could arrange for staff to take part in diversity training. This will help employees to understand diversity issues in the workplace and reflect on their own beliefs. As well as providing skills to help them interact with people different to themselves.

It will also help your employees with protected characteristics - including pregnant employees - to feel valued at work. And show that you are creating an environment where they can feel comfortable.

Review your recruitment policies

To prevent pregnancy or maternity discrimination at work, you should start at the beginning of your recruitment process. This involves evaluating your current hiring process. And ensuring it includes equality and diversity management practices.

These practices help you reach candidates that may not have been available to you before. And a wider talent pool attracts talented job applicants, with better skills and a competitive edge. They might even have unique ideas, views, and ways of working.

Get expert advice on your pregnant employees from Peninsula

You should ensure you support your pregnant employees and are aware of their rights. This includes treating them fairly and preventing discrimination in the workplace.

Otherwise, you could be hit with discrimination claims from your pregnant workers, or those on maternity leave. Which could result in employment tribunals, financial loss for your company, and reputational damage.

Peninsula offers you expert 24/7 HR advice and support, to help your HR department manage your pregnant employees. As well as providing further advice on their employment rights. Contact us today on 0800 028 2420.

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