Avoiding discrimination around pregnancy and parenting leaves: The $18 million reminder of what not to do
When one thinks of a discrimination lawsuit, it is reasonable to jump to age, race, gender, or sexual harassment. Indeed, these are common fact patterns in discrimination cases across the country. However, discrimination in the workplace also extends to pregnancy and parenting. Discrimination can be blatant or subtle. Some discriminatory practices permeate the leave of absence world, presenting issues regarding evaluations while on leave, ignoring medical restrictions, or discriminating against individuals for taking leave. Recently, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California reviewed a case that presented both blatant and subtle discriminatory practices, resulting in a multi-million-dollar settlement. Let’s see what happened, and what employers can do to avoid a big lawsuit price tag and a PR nightmare.
The case was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against Activision Blizzard in July 2021. Activision Blizzard, headquartered in Santa Monica, California, is one of the largest American video game developers and distributors with approximately 9,500 employees and over 100 million players worldwide. The allegations claimed that there was a culture of “constant sexual harassment” at Activision Blizzard.
In addition to jarring allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, there were allegations particular to the leave of absence industry. Specifically, they stated a slew of “discriminatory practices against pregnant female employees”, female parents, and females who were lactating.
Some of these discriminatory practices included promotional discrimination, where a manager commented that the company could not “risk promoting” a female employee “as she might get pregnant and like being a mom too much.” The allegations also stated that “female employees were further treated negatively due to their pregnancies.” Indeed, it was alleged that supervisors would ignore the medical restrictions for pregnant female employees and that, when out on maternity leave, pregnant workers received negative evaluations. Additionally, the allegations noted that “female employees reported that they were criticized for leaving to pick up their children from daycare” and “female employees were kicked out of lactation rooms so employees could use the room for meetings.”
After the DFEH case was filed, the EEOC filed an additional lawsuit, alleging that Activision Blizzard violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and retaliation for complaining about discrimination.
After negotiations between the EEOC and Activision Blizzard, the two entities reached a settlement. The end result included $18 million in monetary relief to establish a fund to be used to compensate victims of harassment and discrimination. In addition to the monetary settlement, the company agreed to other terms, which include anti-harassment/anti-discrimination training for employees and human resources personnel, unannounced audits to assess whether issues are properly being addressed, and a review of the company’s policies and procedures. Clearly, it was a long list of actions aimed at preventing workplace harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
However, the DFEH case against the company is still pending. This means that the company may face additional settlement costs and terms, in addition to the $18 million settlement with the EEOC.
What employers can do
The case against Activision Blizzard certainly reminds employers what not to do, but also serves as an excellent reminder of what employers can do to ensure a non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory workplace. With respect to leave of absence, it is important that employers have well-established policies and procedures for properly handling maternity leaves, small necessity leaves, or parental leaves (including school-related leaves). Having these policies in place and ensuring proper training for all managers and HR personnel, can help support a culture of inclusion and avoid unlawful discrimination or retaliation. Additionally, these policies and procedures should address workplace accommodations, including accommodations for pregnant workers who may need medical restrictions or employees who require private lactation spaces and breaks.
Employers should regularly review and update their policies, provide annual trainings to ensure compliance with these policies, and create a company culture of inclusion and respect. Such actions can help safeguard a company and its employees against unlawful actions that could lead to expensive attorney fees, expensive settlements, and negative impacts to the company’s reputation.
What is Guardian doing?
Guardian works with its compliance and product teams to ensure we are assisting our customers in meeting their legal obligations with respect to leave of absence and workplace accommodations. If you are seeking solutions for leave and accommodation administration, reach out to us for more information.