Pregnant jobseekers: when to divulge the bulge?

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As if pregnant women don’t have enough on their minds, what with the nausea and the genetic testing and the elephant ankles. If you’re interviewing while pregnant, is it wise to tell prospective employers of your impending change of family status? If so, when? How?

This came up recently over lunch with a friend, whose partner is expecting and currently job-hunting in the financial field. I knew of two others who had struggled with the same dilemma, with very different outcomes. My sister-in-law, a lawyer, told her new employers of her pregnancy, and of her plans to take an extended leave. They hired her anyway. But a friend, an academic, interviewed for a university teaching post when her bump was obvious. Though she made the final round and was flown up for the interview, she wasn’t hired, ostensibly for reasons of “fit.”

I asked employment lawyer and blawger George Lenard about the legalities of interviewing while pregnant. “Legally,” he says, “pregnancy discrimination is against the law.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensures that. But there’s still plenty of discrimination against pregnant jobseekers; the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Chaminade University of Hawaii in 2006, and USA Today reports that

Pregnancy discrimination complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) jumped 39% from fiscal year 1992 to 2003.

Bottom line: a pregnant person isn’t legally obligated to mention her condition in an interview. Moreover, a prospective employer isn’t allowed to ask. If he or she does ask, in fact, the interviewer steps into murky legal waters; if then the pregnant jobseeker isn’t hired, she may have a case for discrimination.

“Let’s say she walks in wearing a maternity dress, and the employer says, Are you pregnant?” says Lenard. “The general rule would be that that’s irrelevant; it’s not a quesiton you’d routinely ask a young woman: Are you now or are you planning to become pregnant? Employers take a certain risk by bringing it up.” Not to mention the risk of offending those of us partial to the loose bag dress trend this summer.

Still, he says, “the difficult thing about hiring cases in general is you have often so many applicants that it’s very easy to just say we hired someone better qualified.” Even so, “the way the market is now in a lot of fields, by the time they made the decision to fly someone in for an interview, and the position had been open for a while, and they’d had difficulty finding a suitable candidate–well, it makes it harder to say she just wasn’t right.”

All that said, there are risks to not telling prospective employers about your pregnancy. By taking the job, you’re about to embark on an intimate and hopefully long-term relationship with your bosses. They’re going to notice your excessive collection of muumuus at some point. And, when you tell them your due date, they’re going to ask the accountants to help them count back the months. They’re going to confer in a dark hallway, arms crossed, brows furrowed, their formerly glowing impressions of you now clouded by your deception. Sure, legally, they’d be fools to fire you now. But who needs that kind of rep?

Lenard sighs when I put this to him. On the question of whether or not to divulge the bulge, “I don’t think there’s a pat answer,” he says. On the one hand, honesty is the best policy. On the other, your impending motherhood may be irrelevant to how you perform as, say, a software marketing manager. After knocking around the possible permutations, he comes upon what sounds to me like a reasonable tactic: if you’re not yet so huge you might as well wear a banner reading “preggo,” then wait to inform the employers until you have a firm offer–preferably on paper. The point at which you are working out the terms of your employment is a relevant time to bring up what U.S. law calls a disability, for it will require a certain amount of leave that the bosses must take into their business plans.

Now here’s the big ol’ caveat: as a brand new hire, you will not have a right to the Families and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks off, unpaid, for workers at large companies–let alone the company’s paid maternity leave. That’s another reason to bring up the pregnancy upon hire or near hire: you need to negotiate your absence. A generous employer, like my sister-in-law’s, might offer full benefits upon hire. Others might deign to give you vacation time upfront. Still others may tell you to give birth on your lunch break, in which case you would perhaps prefer not to spend the next few years helping them improve their profit line.

Here’s some helpful and supportive advice by Liz Ryan, a former executive and the founder of WorldWIT, an online community for professional women. Here’s an interesting piece about hiring pregnant jobseekers in the nonprofit world.