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Should HR departments ask women about their plans to start a family?

(223 Posts)
Vickimumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 06-Mar-13 16:39:06

Sheryl Sandbery COO of Facebook has recently said, “Employers should be allowed to ask women about plans for children … Every HR department tells you not to do that but we need to have a much more open conversation.” This has got the Family Friendly team at Mumsnet wondering what you think. Would it make for easier career planning for women and a more open discussion between women at work and employers or would it be a massive backwards step? Have you ever wanted to talk to a potential employer about your long term plans or ask about their maternity package? Have you ever been asked and felt that your answer has had a negative impact on your employability? We'd love to know.

Touchmybum Fri 08-Mar-13 14:25:35

How could you ever trust an employer not to use the information you give them negatively?

And what if you say yes, I am planning to have a family in x amount of time - and your colleague lies and says, no, I've no plans - and then gets treated more favourably?

While wombs continue to be the preserve of women... no, this is a question which should never be asked.

And I work in HR.

GetOrf Fri 08-Mar-13 14:26:55

No, not at all. It would be a massive step backwards.

I would lie anyway if I was asked.

It is a ridiculous question to ask anyway. Just because you plan to ttc in 6 months it could take years to conceive. Or you could have a lucky surprise and get pregnant without meaning to. At least you get notice to plan when a woman announces she is pregnant. Not like a colleague who I worked with years ago who fell down her back step, fractured her hip terribly and was off work for 6 months.

Plus, I have just employed someone who was on a waiting list for major surgery, was expecting it to take months. He was lucky in that he got a place quicker than expected and he is off for about 6 weeks next month. I didn't ask if he had major surgery planned in interview. And I would have been an idiot if I had not employed him because of it - he was simply the best candidate for the job and that is the only consideration anyone should make when recruiting. Everything else requires good planning and management, and if you can't cope with the difficulties with that then you are not a good enough manager and shouldn't be involved in the hiring of staff.

Welovegrapes Fri 08-Mar-13 14:29:10

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Wossname Fri 08-Mar-13 14:39:29

What if you don't have a 'career' but work in crappy places like shops, bars, rest homes and other minimum wage jobs? Is the expectation that if I go for a job stacking shelves in Asda that the person interviewing me will be happy to take into account my plans for a child? And not, say, give the job to a 20 year old man instead?

worldgonecrazy Fri 08-Mar-13 14:48:16

In an ideal world, with lovely supportive employers and co-workers, then yes.

But we're not in an ideal world, and a woman who admitted to be planning to take a break to have a baby in a year's time would not be treated as favourably.

It would be lovely if everyone could have a conversation about the more common "what ifs", and change those "what ifs" into "what cans", i.e. "what can we do to support you if you are returning from maternity leave", "what can we do to support you and your family in order to get the best out of you at work", "what can we do to support your breastfeeding"....

TiredyCustards Fri 08-Mar-13 14:48:44

Ridiculous suggestion. How on earth would this help women?

If the answer to the question makes a difference to how the employee is treated, then it's discrimination.

If the answer doesn't make a difference then why ask?

LexyMa Fri 08-Mar-13 15:00:12

I've just had an interview and been offered a job on promotion internally. I am 15 weeks pg and will be about 21w when I start. I did not make any allusion to this in the interview

Before accepting the offer, I called HR to ask about how they apply the maternity policy for newly promoted staff... "just in some point..." They could not give me a straight answer.

The bit of the policy I was concerned about states that if you take anything more than ordinary maternity leave (26weeks) you come back into your post on same T&Cs, or you are offered something else at the same approximate grade - in this job the promotion route is not 'substantive' and therefore the 'something else' would be impossible to identify, so I would be likely to end up down a grade. I would in that instance go straight to a grievance/ tribunal etc.

What I had to do next was call the line manager and tell him I'd be accepting, but would be taking 6 months ML from Sept. I felt like I was inviting him to put his foot in it and I felt bad about that. He could not have been more reassuring and said it did not change the fact I was the best candidate for the job, we would just have to adjust how the team as a whole planned its output over the coming year.

The HR policy, I now think, is written so that anyone interested in their career only takes 6 months off for mat leave. Those 6 are at full pay, which is great, but the cliff edge to "potentially lose hold on your whole career plan" is very very stark.

I am surprised Xenia has not commented yet on this thread (and I do not mean that sarcastically). Before she does, I will say that the reason I can be confident that I will only need my 6 months ML is that my DH (actually without me asking him to) intends to make my career the priority one of our family. He has, coincidentally, just heard he is likely going to be made redundant (he currently earns 50% more than me) but ensuring that he does all the overnight duty as I go back to work and prove myself again will be another way to show my work (I mean my team and peers, not HR who only see me as a line of data) that I am committed.

So in answer to the question, NO I think HR definitely should not start that conversation. There are so many more influences on 'how you are going to perform as an employee' than whether you have borne or will bear children, I would frankly be insulted. When I am at work I want to be judged equally to the person who has only a cat to feed in the evenings, and the person up all night with an elderly incontinent parent, and the person running five step/adoptive/children between dance and karate clubs six nights a week.

AnneEyhtMeyer Fri 08-Mar-13 15:02:19

I will just tell you about my experience.

I started a new job, and my first task was to downsize the department dramatically. In my first few weeks I had to work out who was going to go, and I was constantly told by HR people and managers who was pregnant, who was TTC and who had just had a baby and was likely to have another. It wasn't just implied that these should be the ones to go, it was assumed they would be.

Not long after I notified people of their redundancies (and no, I didn't pick the ones they wanted, I did it fairly) I was called into a meeting by one of the directors and quizzed about my family, lack of children, plans to have a family. I was in there for more than half an hour. I had tried to conceive for a long while, hadn't been successful and at the age I was (36) had decided that it just wasn't going to happen, so I truthfully told them that I was not planning on having children.

Days later there were a huge swathe of senior management redundancies, and yet I was spared the axe, and I have no doubt that my answers in that meeting were crucial in that.

What I didn't know was that I was actually pregnant at the time. You can imagine how well that went down I announced it.

This wasn't some two-bit company, this is a PLC (FTSE 250 company) and was only a few years ago (DD is almost 4). If anyone thinks that asking questions about plans to conceive at interview will be beneficial for women they are deluded.

caramelwaffle Fri 08-Mar-13 15:08:44

No. They most certainly should not be asking women.

swallowedAfly Fri 08-Mar-13 15:17:11

good to read people's actual experiences.

i was not asked anything about my family situation or intentions at interview (started new job in november). i chose to mention my son, that he was at school and that i was lucky to have involved family close by who were happy to provide impromptu childcare meaning i did have the capacity to be flexible. i'm sure that worked in my favour but it was up to me to bring it up - it would have been utterly inappropriate for them to ask.

some people are incredibly naive about how much employers do respond to your family circumstances. one lady in my initial group interview kept going on about her sick mother and her caring responsibilities (using it as an example of a quality she was talking about in herself) and you knew she was not coming back after lunch!

there is no way they should be able to ask people questions like this at all, let alone just target women. women are already targets.

thereonthestair Fri 08-Mar-13 15:18:09

Interesting. I have always worked in firms who do ask. By the way I am an employment lawyer so really know the risks I this regards. When I suggested asking staff on Another thread earlier this week I was slated. However in my experience it was always better to ask and plan. Maybe I am lucky and always knew that I would be supported with what I chose and that my colleagues would equally be supported. In the end I had ds very early and my work were fantastic.

But I will also say I changed firms a few months ago and three out of 6 people who were vital to this working are woman planning children. One is now pregnant, one having ivf and me. We all felt we owed it to the men who we were working with to explain what we were planning and to explain that we were not all planning to be off together. It was a real concern to all of us, because losing half of the workforce at a time means the difference between us all succeeding, and us all failing. Which means if I was not honest and had pull the three men along with me then their families might also have been at risk. How is it not fair to discuss this with the people who are taking the same risks you are?

I will also say in my field all the discussions are about how the families will plan, not how the women will as there is a presumption that the men will take their leave too, especially as the women are paid more (being lawyers) and we all also have to think about who is going to be available for the clients, as a result of this I have taken the view that ttc when my colleague is pregnant is not for me, as we can't be off together, if that means that I stick with one child then so be it. I have the rest of my life to think about to, and my career is important to me. ( I haven't made my mind up though)

BIWI Fri 08-Mar-13 15:19:47

If I thought that HR was on the side of employees, then it might be a consideration - if asked of both men and women - in terms of long term career planning.

But HR is never there for the employees' benefit. They are there for the management of the company, to make sure it is run efficiently and legally.

I'm outraged, actually, that another woman should be asking such a dreadful, retrograde question.

Of course we should not be asking women if they are planning on having children before we offer them a job!

<BIWI's head explodes>

stealthsquiggle Fri 08-Mar-13 15:22:38

In answer to your question, Vicki - what Wyrd said. If they are going to ask men about their families, and plans for families, and what the impact will be on their career, and take the answers as seriously for men as they do for women, then fine.

I do know one woman at work who openly asked about (and challenged) the maternity policy at our (large, blue chip) employer at interview. All credit to her - and in the process of course she learned a lot (mostly good) about the people she would be working for and with. She has just come back from mat leave grin

Maternity policies are NOT discussed upfront, IME, and they bloody well should be. The employer should be promoting their maternity policy. Ours is such a hidden thing that our country MD was shocked to find out (on a call with the womens network team) that it had been changed and was now significantly worse than "market norm" for new employees sad

FrillyMilly Fri 08-Mar-13 15:24:02

What's the difference between needing time off for children, a disabled partner, long term illness, elderly parents or bereavement? Many people, men and women, have commitments and need time off at some point in their career. I don't think telling a company your family plans will help your career at all, it would be used to discriminate.

CMOTDibbler Fri 08-Mar-13 15:25:47

Only if you ask everyone their reproductive plans, wider family responsibilities/liabilities, and commit to making flexible working/career provisions etc available without those choices affecting their promotion and career prospects.

When I joined the company I'm with, I had no thoughts on my reproductive future - and it was 7 years before I had a child. 6 years on, and its my elderly parents who are more disruptive to my work life!

curryeater Fri 08-Mar-13 15:30:31

No one asked me if I was planning to have any children but I was, and this has contributed hugely to my loyalty to the company from which I have taken two maternity leaves.

However, having anounced my pregnancies in good time, both times, the last weeks and days of work before maternity leave were heavily overshadowed by the stress of not having been empowered to plan cover for my leaves properly. Companies may say they want to plan when the ball is in your court, but when it's in theirs, they want to stick their fingers in their ears and say "la la la la".

nenevomito Fri 08-Mar-13 15:32:34

There's nothing sisterly about it and no, HR departments shouldn't be asking.

Asking men as well still doesn't cut it, as even in families where the woman is the main earner, the assumption is that the man will continue working where the woman will suddenly want to stay home and bake sodding fairy cakes.

Lots of companies already state that they don't want to employ women of child bearing age, regardless of their skills and ability. Being able to ask whether or not they want to have children would just make that worse.

Companies should make their maternity policies available to all employed staff anyway.

Mintberry Fri 08-Mar-13 15:36:08

Put it this way, I wouldn't tell the truth if I were asked. I haven't met a single employer I have thought would choose to have to pay maternity leave. I have known a woman be sacked for accidentally falling pregnant within the 3 month trial period. Compassion isn't usually part of a business plan! You've got to support your kids somehow, so I reckon it would be pointless because hardly anyone would hold their hands up and say "Yes, I am TTC/planning to start TTC".

EuroShaggleton Fri 08-Mar-13 15:40:26

I've been ttc for over two years. If I had told my employer over two years ago that I was planning to start a family, no doubt I would have been held back from interesting long term projects and so on. As it is, I have done some very interesting and high profile work over that period. And frankly I have no desire to discuss with anyone at work my plans to have unprotected sex with my husband. Would they want details of positions next ffs?

Also, in this country, parental leave can now be split. From memory, I think the mother has to take the first 20 weeks of any leave, but the time after that can be divided between the parents (and it is something we are considering as I am the higher earner). So for this to make sense, it would need to be asked to men and women.

Anyway, employers are free to ask the question now. There's no ban on it. They will however face a discrimination claim if they can be shown to have discriminated on the basis of the information received, so they would be foolish to do so.

caramelwaffle Fri 08-Mar-13 15:50:59

A friend and colleague of mine is part way through six months + off work with a young baby. They had planned for years to do this.

It is six months full pay, plus extra time off at a reduced rate.

They are the higher earner out of the couple and they have decided it makes sense financially and in terms of parenting style for them to be the one at home.

They are a real "earth mother/loves children" type.

It is adoption leave and extra leave.

My friend is male.

Go figure, as the youths say.

CheeseStrawWars Fri 08-Mar-13 15:51:53

So the argument is that women going on maternity leave causes disruption and costs money - is disruption and cost really going to be affected by women disclosing whether they are planning a family or not? It's still a lottery when you will conceive from when you start TTC, so it's not as if planning can take place in an any more organised fashion, it will still happen when it happens.

I can't imagine any scenario in which disruption would be minimised through such disclosure - except for where the employer chose the person who said they weren't planning to have/increase their family, over the person who said there were. Which minimises disruption to the business - assuming the other person was being honest and had 100% failsafe contraception - but is discriminatory, and penalises honesty.

And where would it stop? Would you be expected to comment on how many children you were aiming for and with what age gaps? Disclose your current methods of contraception for risk assessment?!

Are all staff also going to be asked to disclose when they start job-hunting, as that also causes disruption and has a cost implication, or would that be considered an invasion of privacy?

caramelwaffle Fri 08-Mar-13 15:52:46

His wife has remained at work.

CheeseStrawWars Fri 08-Mar-13 15:53:35

However, having anounced my pregnancies in good time, both times, the last weeks and days of work before maternity leave were heavily overshadowed by the stress of not having been empowered to plan cover for my leaves properly. Companies may say they want to plan when the ball is in your court, but when it's in theirs, they want to stick their fingers in their ears and say "la la la la".

^^ This. This was completely my experience too!

Trills Fri 08-Mar-13 15:54:15

Do't you have to tell your employer that you are pregnant by about halfway through your pregnancy anyway? So they have 4/5 months to plan before you start maternity leave.

Wishiwasanheiress Fri 08-Mar-13 16:04:10


It's an infringement of personal freedom. I should be able to think on Monday I hate kids never want them, go out meet a great guy/win lottery, on Tuesday and Wednesday decide to have them without having to discuss this with line management for permission.

Would a man accept such treatment? No. So why the ballyhoo should I?

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