The EEOC just sued J.C. Penney claiming that it refused to hire a woman at a Brunswick, Georgia store because she was pregnant.  While that is not big news (except to perhaps the woman and the management at that J.C. Penney location), the lawsuit offers some good lessons.

Why?  Well, the case involves two interesting set of accusations.  First, Cecely Rogers, the woman who applied for a job as a cosmetologist, had held the exact same job at a J.C. Penney in Las Vegas during the prior two years before relocating to Georgia, and she was listed in the company’s HR system as “eligible for rehire” at the time she was turned down for the job in Georgia.  So, it was probably quite surprising to her that she was not hired.  These facts likely contributed to the dispute ending up in litigation, and they point out how HR and its processes can shape and affect an employee’s or applicants expectations.  But these facts are not the most notable parts of this case.

What stands out most — and undoubtedly sparked the EEOC’s interest and decision to file suit — is the second notable allegation.  According to Ms. Rogers, when she was not hired, she was told that the hiring manager “hasn’t had much luck hiring pregnant women.”  Ms. Rogers was pregnant at the time she applied for the job.  She claims she was told to re-contact the store after having her baby and they could consider her application again then.

Seriously?  Anyone at the Brunswick J.C. Penney store heard of pregnancy discrimination?

HR professionals (and most non-HR pros too!) know that employers cannot discriminate against pregnant employees or applicants.  There are very few situations where pregnancy (including actual, perceived or potential/future pregnancy) can be properly considered in a hiring or other employment decision.  Nothing about this case suggests this was one of those rare exceptions.  Rather, the alleged comment suggests it was merely about the manager’s negative perceptions of pregnant employees, which is precisely the kind of discrimination the law was designed to prevent.

The allegation that someone from the store’s management or HR would have (allegedly) said something about having “no luck hiring pregnant employees” or asking an applicant to re-apply “after giving birth” is pretty striking.  If these statements were made, this will be a difficult case for J.C. Penney to defend, and it will likely have to be settled well before trial.  If the allegation is false (and one would expect there is another side of the story since J.C. Penney has not already resolved this case), then litigation will hopefully bring out the truth.  But either way, the (purported) comment is a good reminder for HR professionals.

When you hear about this case, you should ask yourself some questions:

– Are my team members and managers well-trained on employment laws?

– Do they know the legal and acceptable bases for making employment decisions — and know the illegal and unacceptable ones too?

– Are they trained on how to properly communicate employment decisions?

– Do they know better than to make thoughtless comments about improper basis for employment actions — even if they think they are sparing an employee’s feelings?

– Could I imagine them making the comments allegedly made in this case by J.C. Penney?

If you are not 100% sure that everyone in your organization knows better than to think, let alone communicate to an applicant or employee that you are not hiring her solely due to her pregnancy, then you need to conduct some training and increase their education on employment laws ASAP.  If these types of comments are made, an employer is easy pickings for employment lawsuits and the very unwanted attention of the EEOC.  That is a position that no employer — and no HR professional — should ever want to be in.