Netflix has been in the news for the alleged firing of a manager following her disclosure that she was pregnant.  This is all too common.  Recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of mothers had had a negative and possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or after their return from maternity leave.

Pregnancy and maternity are “protected characteristics” under the Equality Act 2010. Dismissing an employee for being pregnant is discrimination.  Treating a woman unfavourably because of her pregnancy, a pregnancy-related illness or because she is planning to take maternity leave is also discrimination.  Unfavourable treatment includes dismissal, demotion or refusing promotion/training opportunities etc.

It may be possible to lawfully dismiss an employee who is pregnant but only if the dismissal is not related to the employee’s pregnancy, pregnancy-related illness, pending maternity leave or her sex.  The dismissal would also need to be for a fair reason, such as poor performance, redundancy or misconduct (and not related to pregnancy, pregnancy-related illness etc).  Inferences will be drawn, perhaps more so than in any other employment situation, so the facts and evidence will be crucial and situations have to be handled carefully, following proper internal procedures.   

It is also lawful to treat pregnant women differently in certain very limited circumstances where this is required to comply with laws protecting women or for health and safety.  For example, it would be lawful to suspend (but not dismiss) a pregnant night shift employee whose GP has certified she must not work nights.