'Overt discrimination' | By refusing pregnant HR worker a pay rise, bosses made a costly error

By refusing pregnant HR worker a pay rise, bosses made a costly error

An HR worker has won £9,000 after she was refused a pay rise because she was due to go on maternity leave.

An employment tribunal in London has ordered construction firm Breyer Group to compensate Laura Musguin, after she was told her request for a salary bump was “not feasible” because she was shortly due to have her second child.

An employment judge ruled that Musguin, an HR advisor for the Romford-based business, was the victim of an 'act of overt discrimination’, awarding her a four-figure sum and spotlighting the issue of pregnancy in the workplace.

The tribunal was told that Musguin, who joined Breyer Group in 2017, went on maternity leave with her first child from June 2019 to August 2020.

While she was off, a junior HR coordinator was hired to provide cover and was offered a £27,000 salary – £3,000 less than Musguin’s earnings.

When Ms Musguin came back from maternity leave in August 2020, she learned of the relatively small difference between her salary and that of the junior assistant.

Feeling the situation was “deeply unfair” and “undervalued her work and her experience”, Ms Musguin – now pregnant with her second child – made an argument to her HR manager, Hardeep Rayat, that she should get a pay rise.

However, she was later informed that Tim Breyer and Neil Fisher had rejected the request “because she was due to commence a period of maternity leave at Christmas.”

“Mr Rayat told her that Mr Fisher had said that as she would only be in the business for four months, a pay rise was not feasible”, the tribunal heard.

The rejection left Musguin feeling “disillusioned” and that “she was not worthy of a pay rise simply because she was growing a human.”

Judge Alison Russell concluded that the refusal of a pay rise was “unfavourable treatment”.

“Even if she was not entitled to a pay rise, the refusal to exercise discretion in favour of giving a pay rise because of impending maternity leave is clearly unfavourable”, she concluded.

“This was an act of overt discrimination.

“Instead of seeing her pregnancy and impending maternity leave as a happy time to be enjoyed, it was tainted with mixed feelings as it was the stated cause of the reason she was initially refused the pay rise.”

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Pregnancy & maternity discrimination

This case shines a light on pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace.

The introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 meant that pregnancy and maternity became a protected characteristic – rather than having to raise claims under “sex discrimination”, which happened prior to 2010.

This means that any woman who is treated differently or unfairly during the period of her pregnancy, maternity leave, recently after giving birth or while breastfeeding could make a claim for discrimination.

According to Acas, there are two types of pregnancy and maternity discrimination – unfavourable treatment and victimisation.

Unfavourable treatment occurs when an employee or job application is disadvantaged because of their pregnancy or maternity.

However, victimisation occurs when an employee suffers what the law deems as ‘detriment’ which is what causes a disadvantage, harm or loss as a result. This can include giving evidence relating to a complaint about discrimination or raising a grievance concerning equality or discrimination.

In a recent Insight piece for HR Grapevine, HR and employment law experts Moorepay revealed “not considering the employee for pay rises” was a common discriminatory practice against pregnant workers.

The big learnings for HR

Despite it being an incredibly exciting time for most, pregnancy and early parenthood will always be fraught with stress and anxiety. However, no workplace should be contributing to the problem.

With many businesses still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, it is understandable why bosses might be hesitant to give staff pay rises, particularly if they’re already having to pay an additional salary to someone covering a maternity role.

But the law is clear and so are the consequences for breaking it. And as Breyer Group’s payout shows, discriminatory cost-cutting measures could have major long-term reputational and financial impact.

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