Job bias on the basis of ... parenthood

It may be one of the most overlooked forms of discrimination in the workplace: the refusal to hire or promote people because they have children.

The issue has long been a staple of Hollywood movies. Now it is gaining visibility in the cubicles and corner offices of corporate America.

In an era of two-parent working families, employees are increasingly pressing companies to accommodate family demands. At the same time, employers are struggling to determine how far they can go in meeting workers' needs - without compromising the bottom line.

Inevitably, conflicts occur. Determining when a company is actually discriminating against someone on the basis of parenthood, though, is difficult. "It's the kind of thing that happens but isn't ever spoken of," says Craig Platt, a consultant on discrimination issues in Alameda, Calif.

Companies cannot refuse to hire or promote people on the basis of race, religion, gender, color, or national origin. But US law says nothing about parenthood.

That may be changing. A handful of states and cities now have laws that prohibit companies from discriminating against workers on the basis of parental or familial status. President Clinton also gave a nod to the issue during his State of the Union address, calling on Congress to pass a law preventing companies from refusing to hire or promote workers simply because they have children.

Still, the seriousness of the problem is difficult to determine. Recently a handful of such cases have emerged. But the US Constitution does not specifically protect against antiparent bias.

Most of the concern is anecdotal: A family man suspects he was passed over for a promotion because it's cheaper to relocate a single person; or a mother sees a promotion go to a woman without children.

"It's a problem [that] we haven't seen it's full extent yet," says David Larson, a law professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who studies employment law.

"When you've got employers trying to keep their work forces as small as possible," he argues, "they may be very selective and discriminatory in who they choose for that core group of workers."

Mr. Platt says he's seen companies overlook employees with children for assignments that involve traveling or relocating. "When you have children, you are considered less flexible...," he contends.

In addition, he says, companies that downsize will opt to get rid of employees with "family problems," such as workers who frequently are absent to stay home with their kids.

"There has been a longstanding problem of greater or lesser magnitude regarding the hiring of parents," adds Judy Clark, president of HR Answers, a national human resources consulting firm based in Portland, Ore.

"I don't know if it will ever be as blatant as, 'You've got kids, I won't hire you,' " she says. "It will be more subtle than that: 'You aren't working as hard; you aren't putting in the extra effort.' "

Passed over for promotion

In a case filed recently, Joann Trezza, a New York lawyer who has worked for the insurance company The Hartford Inc. since 1978, claims she was passed over for promotions several times because she is married with two children. The jobs went to childless women or men with children.

She also claims her supervisors made disparaging remarks about working mothers, such as: "Women are not good planners, especially women with kids."

"If you're a man with children, employers see you as more responsible, more capable of doing your job," says Ms. Trezza's lawyer, Steven Eckhaus of Eckhaus & Olson. "If you're a woman with children, many employers see it as a problem."

The Hartford does not comment on pending cases.

But it's difficult to determine how big a problem this is. "The cases sure aren't arising," says Elaine Shoben, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies employment law. "But it would be a simple enough thing to [discriminate]."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The law, however, does not include marital or family status. That means companies can discriminate against workers with children, as long as they discriminate against men and women equally.

"Companies certainly have the right to hire the best person for the job," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel of the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington.

"What this law would do is require an employer to make an individual determination," she says, and not one based on unfair assumptions about a group - in this case that someone with children will be less productive or less available.

Laws to protect parents

Several states and cities - including New Jersey, Michigan, Alaska, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Miami - have statutes prohibiting discrimination based on familial status. The president is calling on Congress to adopt a similar measure.

"Workers should not be discriminated against simply because they have children," says Jennifer Klein, special assistant to the president for domestic policy. "We must support those people who are managing to meet their responsibilities at work and at home."

Legal consultants, however, agree that such cases would be tough to prove.

And some in corporate America argue that such problems aren't an issue. "This is a solution in search of a problem," says Susan Meisinger, senior vice president of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

In fact, she says, the tight labor market is forcing companies to move in the other direction. "The whole trend has been for greater flexibility," she says, "and to allow for greater work-life balance."

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