Q. I'm a 34-year-old graphic artist, working at a small print shop that has about eight employees. Recently I told my boss that I had been diagnosed with infertility, and that the treatment to become pregnant would require me to go to the doctor five to six times a month. He usually allows us to use paid sick time for doctor's appointments, but I wanted to be fair to him, so I suggested that because I would miss so much time he might want to cut my official hours back to 30 per week.
Instead he fired me. He said he needed workers who were 100 percent committed, not part time, and that once I got pregnant I would leave. In essence, he fired me because I have a medical condition.
I feel that his firing me was discriminatory. It had nothing to do with my abilities as a worker. In fact, he's offered to write me a reference. My doctor thinks I should sue him because the stress of losing my job is one more impediment to getting pregnant. I am reluctant to sue, because it would wreck the business and all my friends could lose their jobs.
Now I don't know what to do. If I am honest with prospective employers, what chance do I have of being hired?
A. Hmmm. And they say honesty is always the best policy.
When--and whether--to tell employers about infertility problems is an issue of growing concern to workers who require medical treatment in order to conceive. Deborah Wachenheim, government affairs director of Resolve, the National Infertility Association, said she believes that cases like the letter writer's are fairly rare, and that most employers are willing to cooperate to help schedule medical appointments for infertility treatments.
Donna Lenhoff, general counsel for the National Partnership for Women & Families, said the situation may not seem fair but she doubts the writer could win a lawsuit, at least in federal court, despite some favorable court rulings recently. For example, the Supreme Court ruled last year that people can be considered disabled, and protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, if they have an impairment that substantially limits reproduction. But the ADA covers only firms with 15 or more employees. Similarly, Title VII, which bans discrimination in employment based on gender or pregnancy status, applies only to workplaces with more than 15 employees.
As to where to go next, Wachenheim suggested the writer look to companies with more than 50 workers, so she can qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which permits workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for medical reasons. For more specifics on the FMLA and infertility, visit the organization's Web site (www.resolve.org).
I work as a management consultant at one of the "Big Five" accounting firms. It has a large audit practice, and the clients include many Fortune 500 companies and mutual funds.
Recently the firm has been asked to strengthen its independence policies regarding staff ownership of equities, mutual funds, etc., which are audited by the firm. All staff above the level of consultant or manager, as well as their spouses and dependents, are being required to provide the firm with a list of all stocks and mutual funds they own, and we are not to purchase stock in firms or mutual funds that our company audits. These were policies that formerly only applied to audit partners.
Given the large number of companies and mutual funds audited by our company, it's certainly cause for concern to us. But it is the privacy issue that is giving me and most of my colleagues the most discomfort. Does an employer have the right to require this kind of information from its employees?
Yes, this policy can pinch, especially in today's hyper-charged stock market. But employers can and should require this information.
Regulations enacted in 1933 and enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission specify that accounting firms and their partners and certain professionals "not have, or commit to acquire" any financial interest in the companies that are their audit clients.
"These laws came out of the Great Depression, when there was a lack of confidence in the securities market," said Bob Burns, chief counsel for the SEC's chief accountant. "Individuals need to make sacrifices to support broad public policies that keep markets strong and credible."
Arthur Siegal, executive director of the New York-based Independence Standards Board, which helps companies comply with the rules, said he understands the letter writer's frustration. As a former audit partner with an accounting firm, Siegal recalled the pain of watching "the hottest stocks pass through our firm," reconciling himself to viewing from afar as others got rich by scooping up shares. "I had to accept it," he said.
The board was created three years ago by federal regulators and industry groups in response to worries that the potential for conflicts of interest could grow as the accounting industry consolidates and moves into many new lines of business. Siegal said some new entrants into the field appear uninformed about the need to ensure that the auditors reviewing a company's books are financially detached so that shareholders can rely on companies' financial statements without worrying that insiders are cooking the books.
On the privacy issue, Siegal said companies should make it clear to their workers that access to private investment information will be strictly limited within the firm to only those supervisors with a need to know.