Discrimination against caregivers can take many forms:  refusing to hire, not providing opportunities for training necessary for advancement, not giving evaluations that are unjustifiably negative, not socializing, providing resources or sales leads necessary to performance, making sarcastic or belittling jokes, being overly critical of work product, scrutinizing attendance, refusing to promote, disciplining for minor infractions or for infractions that others are not disciplined for, making negative comments, building a case for termination, placing on undesirable assignments or work shifts, transferring to a less desirable location, demoting, removing responsibility, and terminating – just to name a few.

Typically, the negative treatment starts once it becomes known in the workplace that an employee has become or is about to become a caregiver:  when a pregnancy is announced, when news of an employee’s parent’s illness spreads, when adoption papers are finalized.  It can happen to men and women alike, and the treatment usually comes from both male and female supervisors.

Of course, negative treatment doesn’t happen to all caregivers.  When it does, it creates many problems for the employer, including reduced productivity caused by distraction and stress, erosion of collegiality and teamwork, and loss of experienced employees who are forced out of their jobs.  That’s on top of potential legal liability.  So the question becomes:  why does FRD happen?

Discrimination against caregivers usually arises because of unexamined assumptions about how they will or should act.  For example, a supervisor may assume that a woman will not be as good an employee after she becomes pregnant because she will be distracted.  Or the supervisor may assume a woman will no longer be committed to her job once she becomes a mother.  Or a supervisor will terminate the mother of a newborn because women should be at home with their babies.

There are several problems with these assumptions.  First, they typically influence supervisors’ decisions without the supervisors even being aware of them.  Why does the supervisor choose Single Sam over Married Martha to attend a leadership development conference?  Could it be that the supervisor is influenced by the unexamined assumption that it isn’t worth investing in female employees because they get pregnant and quit?

Second, the assumptions lead to negative treatment regardless of whether they are true.  They often influence before the feared problem with performance comes to pass – and it may never come to pass.  Married Martha may not have children, and if she does, she may be just as committed and productive and dependable as she’s always been.

Third, the assumptions can be self-reinforcing and do long-term damage to the workplace.  For example, if supervisors assume that women have children and quit, and all the women are therefore treated poorly, women will feel that the stress of trying to juggle work and family isn’t worth it – so they will quit.  With all the mothers quitting, women will get the message that they can’t have a family and work for that employer.

Understanding how and why FRD arises is the first step to preventing it in the workplace.

Next: FRD As A Growing Problem