Friday, August 19, 2011

Federal court takes EEOC to task for its work-life-balance agenda

In a 64-page opinion, a New York federal court issued a scathing indictment of the EEOC’s sue-first-ask-questions-later litigation tactics. In EEOC v. Bloomberg L.P., the agency accused the financial news giant of engaging in a pattern and practice of discriminating against pregnant women and mothers. The court strongly disagreed:

“J’accuse!” is not enough in court. Evidence is required.

The court also lobbed a grenade against those who pursue a work-life-balance agenda in the name of sex discrimination:

At bottom, the EEOC’s theory of this case is about so-called “work-life balance.” Absent evidence of a pattern of discriminatory conduct—i.e., a pattern that women or mothers were discriminated against because of their pregnancy as compared with others who worked similar schedules—the EEOC’s pattern or practice claim does not demonstrate a policy of discrimination at Bloomberg. It amounts to a judgment that Bloomberg, as a company policy, does not provide its employee mothers with a sufficient work-life balance…. The law does not mandate “work-life balance.” It does not require companies to ignore employees’ work-family tradeoffs—and they are tradeoffs—when deciding about employee pay and promotions. It does not require that companies treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others. All of these things may be desirable, they may make business sense, and they may be “forward-thinking.” But they are not required by law. The law simply requires fair treatment of all employees. It requires holding employees to the same standards.

In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication its expectation, making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences. But those consequences occur for anyone who takes significant time away from Bloomberg, not just for pregnant women and mothers…. Bloomberg’s standard operating procedure was to treat pregnant employees who took leave similarly to any employee who took significant time away from work for whatever reason. The law does not create liability for making that business decision.

In other words, family responsibility discrimination is only unlawful if it treats genders differently. It is not unlawfully discriminatory for a company to discriminate against those who chose family over their jobs, so long as men and women suffer the same consequences. The failure to provide what makes business-sense (promoting a family-friendly work environment) does not, in an of itself, equate to sex discrimination (despite what the EEOC may tell you).

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or