Lying to your boss is never a good idea. Having a baby is. But for many women, telling their employer they are pregnant can be a very stressful experience. Women worry about being perceived as less serious or career-minded — the weak link in the team. It’s not hard to see why. Despite making all the right noises about being progressive and open minded, in my experience both professionally and personally, most employers don’t greet pregnancy news with open arms. “CLM” or “Career Limiting Move” are words women often hear. While women need to assert themselves and fight back, the reality is somewhat starker.
Can you lose your job for lying about your pregnancy?
In a recent case from British Columbia, Opp v. Mackoff Law Corporation, 2016 BCHRT 13, 2016, an employee lost her job when her employer learned that she had lied about her pregnancy.
The facts of this case are very important.
Ms. Opp was hired by a law firm as a legal assistant. On her first day of work, she walked into the workplace already knowing she was pregnant. However, a couple of days into her job, she told a colleague that she had just learned that she was pregnant and that she had already told the principal of the law firm about her pregnancy. Several days later, Ms. Opp told two female colleagues that she had just discovered she was pregnant and that she was concerned about how her pregnancy would be perceived. Subsequently, Ms. Opp told a senior administrator in her firm that she was pregnant. A few days later, the principal of the law firm learned that Ms. Opp had lied about how long she had known she was pregnant. He terminated her employment.
Ms. Opp brought a human rights complaint, claiming that she fired because she was pregnant. She lost. The tribunal accepted the employer’s position that Ms. Opp has been fired for deceitfulness, not because she was pregnant.
In making its finding the tribunal found:
- The employer was a law firm and was able to argue that the employee’s lack of “truthfulness” created a greater risk than would be the case for the average employer. Working in a law firm placed a higher expectation of candour on the employee, with the result that deceitfulness was seen to be more egregious.
- The employer had a history of accommodating other pregnant employees.
It was Ms. Opp’s lie to her employer about when she became aware of her pregnancy, not the fact she was pregnant in the first place, which got her into trouble. Telling her employer inconsistent stories ultimately cost Ms. Opp her job.
Most employers understand that pregnancy is considered a “protected ground” under human rights law. In everyday speak, this means that that an employer can’t fire, discriminate or treat a woman differently because she is pregnant. Protected grounds include race, religion, and place of origin, ancestry, family status and mental and physical disability. In this case, Ms. Opp seems to have felt that she had to lie to keep her job. Was it because she wasn’t aware of human rights law? Or more likely, she, like so many women, sensed that she could be perceived as deceitful for not disclosing the fact she was pregnant at the time she was hired.
Let’s consider a different scenario.
What if, at the time she was hired, Ms. Opp had told her employer about her pregnancy, but was not hired. How is this situation any better? Without wanting to be too cynical, had she disclosed her pregnancy at the time of hire she might not have been hired in the first place.
In my view, this case highlights some very live issues about how pregnant women get treated in the workplace.
Ms. Opp’s reasons for not being truthful were likely based on broad systemic problems in our work culture. Was it reasonable for the tribunal to conclude that Ms. Opp was a dishonest person who could not be trusted in the future? To draw this conclusion ignores the real social hurdles women face at work when they choose to have a baby. The case illustrates that there is a certain level of fear and stigma surrounding this issue. Other disciplinary options were available to the employer besides termination. The employer could have easily disciplined this employee or provided her with reassurance rather than make a dramatic decision to end Ms. Opp’s employment.
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