Dear Auntie

We have an employee, Leia, who works in our postroom. Leia has been coming into work very late in the morning. She is often up to an hour and a half or two hours late. Recently I took her to one side and asked her to explain herself. She was silent for a little while and then said that she is pregnant and has morning sickness which is making her late.

The day after that discussion, Leia left work early (at 2pm) telling her Line Manager that she had an ante natal appointment. In the last four weeks, she has been late to work twelve times, and on each occasion has said this is due to morning sickness, and has also been absent on five afternoons for ante natal appointments.

Leia has also now asked to be taken off all the post-runs as she says this is an inappropriate physical strain on her.

I am not the suspicious kind, but at our summer party last week, I saw Leia smoking her way through a pack of Benson & Hedges and knocking back Bacardi Breezers, which seems surprising given her “condition”. When I asked her if she had spoken to her doctor about whether it was safe to smoke and drink while pregnant, she told me in no uncertain terms to mind my own business.

I think Leia is trying to pull the wool over my eyes; but what can I do?

Yours tentatively

Concerned

 

Dear Concerned,

It sounds to me as though Leia may well not be expecting a little bundle of joy, but is having a bundle of fun at your company’s expense.

There is one immediate step you can take to check out your suspicions.

Although employees are entitled to paid time off for ante natal appointments when they are pregnant, as an employer you are entitled to see a certificate confirming the pregnancy (from a doctor, midwife or other health professional), and an appointment card or letter which confirms the appointment.

I would suggest that next time Leia wants to take time out for an appointment, you tell her she cannot have that time off unless she takes it as holiday if she does not produce those documents to you. Given that you have already allowed her out of the office for the earlier appointments, it will be harder to challenge her on these. She may well say that she has lost the appointment cards. Unless you have formally made it your policy before now to require employees to produce this documentation before they take paid time off for these appointments, it will be difficult retrospectively to apply that condition to Leia, despite your suspicions.

Leia may find herself "hoist by her own petard", by her request to undertake lighter duties. All pregnant employees are entitled to have a risk assessment carried out in the work place. In fact, if employers fail to do so, this is in itself an act of discrimination. I would suggest that you ask your Health and Safety Officer (or a Health and Safety Consultant if you have one) to undertake Leia’s risk assessment with her. If there are any question marks in the assessor’s mind about what is suitable work for Leia, the next stage would be to ask her to attend an occupational health adviser for a medical view. It seems to me likely that Leia would hesitate to attend a doctor if she is actually bluffing. Bear in mind, though, that you need a contractual power in your contract of employment to require an employee to see a doctor. You also must have an employee’s consent to the release of their medical records.

Finally, you might wish to test out Leia’s apparent morning sickness, by suggesting that she might start later and finish later for the next few weeks. If she is work-shy rather than truly sick, it is unlikely she would find that prospect appealing.

Whilst I can understand your suspicions arising from Leia’s behaviour at the summer party, I would not advise that you take issue with her further on this. Although employers have a duty to consider the health and safety of their employees, and employees have a duty to take care of themselves in the work place, an employee’s decision to smoke and drink while pregnant is very much her own. However, if Leia was actually rude to you, this is a separate conduct issue. You might consider whether to ask her to attend an investigatory meeting to discuss your conversation at the party and if she is unable to explain herself adequately, this might then give rise to a disciplinary hearing. However, it is unlikely any severe disciplinary sanction would be appropriate in this instance.

As always with pregnant employees, you need to take care not to intrude on Leia’s privacy, as it is possible your suspicions are unfounded. You certainly cannot order Leia to undergo a pregnancy test! However, where you have any firm evidence on which you can rely that Leia is swinging the lead (for example, some gentle chats with other employees may report that she has told them she is out partying in the evenings and hungover in the mornings), then if you have a cumulative weight of evidence you would be justified in taking this to an investigation and potentially a disciplinary hearing.

However, I would recommend that you take legal advice from a leading law firm, such as Fox Williams, before tackling the wayward Leia, as this situation is fraught with potential difficulties.

Yours sincerely

Auntie

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