Take Stephen Sozio, the co-leader of Jones Day’s health care practice who also chairs the firm’s litigation department in Cleveland. At a recent office meeting, he apparently "encouraged" women to tell management if they were pregnant or planning on be, reports Elie Mystal at Above the Law.
"In my opinion, that is definitely an unlawful inquiry," says Verdrager. "There are several things at play: the imbalance of power, the invasive nature of the question and the potential for evidence to support an inference of discrimination."
She adds that she tried and won a case for a female client several years ago in Massachusetts in which "the single act of discrimination/retaliation was one conversation where the employer aggressively demanded information about my client’s child care plans." After the pregnant woman refused to provide specifics, but indicated her intention to return to work full time, the employer fired her, citing her "nasty and disrespectful attitude," says Verdrager.
From a "business perspective," adds Verdrager, "asking such a question exposes the firm to tremendous liability."
Permit me to be more blunt: It's just stupid to ask female employees about their baby plans.
So how is Jones Day dealing with this little public relations calamity? It issued a statement by Heather Lennox, partner-in-charge of its Cleveland office, that says, in part: "Mr. Sozio’s actual remarks were simply to thank all in attendance for their hard work on behalf of Firm clients and to request that, if anyone is presently planning a leave of any kind (including clerkships) next year and would be comfortable sharing the information, it would help the Firm in doing its annual budgeting." (Sozio has not yet replied to my request for comment.)
Nice attempt at spin, but I think it's obvious that Sozio put his foot in his mouth.
These days, most firms are much savvier about how they deal with these issues in the workplace. They know what to tout, like their awesome parental leave policies, flexible working arrangements and how they pay for overnight shipment of breast milk. Most firms would not want to be known as the one that asked women to put their pregnancy plans on the firm calendar.
But I'm not here to slam Sozio. I don't believe he was out to get mommies. He's simply a bit out of it about the dos and don'ts of handling women's issues. Maybe he didn't get the memo about unconscious bias and all the insulting/insensitive/dumb/possibly illegal things male partners do or say to women at the workplace.
Remember, you can't expect every guy to be "woke" just because it's 2018 and #MeToo is the raging topic of our day.
So let's be nice to the hapless white guy from Ohio and give him some time to catch up. It's the least we can do.