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workplace etiquette

Talking about sex, politics and religion is generally considered off-limits in the workplace, but there appears to be no such taboo when it comes to discussing a co-worker's pregnancy.

Expectant mothers report being asked: Was the baby planned? Did you use fertility drugs? Do you plan to breastfeed? Or, a favourite among pregnant women: You're huge. Are you sure you're having just one?

Some people even feel compelled to touch a pregnant colleague's belly, or comment on the ways in which her body is changing.

While pregnant women might expect such probing questions from their nosey aunt Edna, it's considered intrusive and unprofessional in the workplace.

Experts say employers and co-workers alike need to be more careful about the comments they make to expectant mothers, and how they treat them.

"People feel like they can be a lot more personal with you just because you happen to be carrying a baby, whether that's touching you or talking to you in ways that they ordinarily wouldn't," said Shirley Friesen, a registered psychologist in British Columbia and vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a union representing scientists and other professionals working at the federal level.

"There should be a rule of thumb: Would you consider it appropriate to talk to someone that way who wasn't pregnant?"

Not only can such personal questions and comments be inappropriate, they can also make a pregnant employee feel diminished professionally, Ms. Friesen said.

"There are certain questions you could probably ask, as long as you're open and not judgmental," she said.

It also depends on the employee or manager's relationship with the pregnant woman and her willingness to broach the subject of pregnancy herself.

Employers and colleagues also need to understand that being pregnant is considered a medical condition and can be stressful, Ms. Friesen said.

Some women have more difficult pregnancies than others. They may be sick more often and need to take time off for medical appointments.

One Vancouver mother of twins said she was often ill during her pregnancy and felt judged by other mothers at work who didn't have the same experience.

"My doctor appointments were scheduled during working hours. There was no way around it," said the woman, an office worker who asked not to be identified.

She said she made up for the lost time on evenings and weekends, but believes her colleagues thought she wasn't working as hard during her pregnancy.

"You don't want to feel bad about being pregnant at work. It would've been nice to feel it wasn't a problem."

Ms. Friesen said managers in particular need to be supportive and accommodating, and understand that not all pregnant women react the same to their condition.

They also shouldn't make assumptions about a how a pregnant employee's workload or career goals could change, Ms. Friesen said.

She recommend employers talk to pregnant employees about their needs, and be sure to include them in meetings and projects, even if they won't be there to see them through.

"Sometimes managers are scared to have those conversations because they don't want to offend," she said. "If it's said in the right way with the right intentions, most people will get it right."

Avra Davidoff, a registered psychologist with Calgary Career Counselling, said pregnant women often complain about a lack of flexibility on the job and being given fewer opportunities than men and colleagues without children.

"There are too many organizations out there that are not getting it right," Ms. Davidoff says. Her practice is working on a research project, with the funding support of the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling, looking at the impact of maternity leave on the career development of women.

"Employers are making assumptions that because someone is having a family that they may be less dedicated to their career. Actually, from what we're hearing, it's the opposite."

Ms. Davidoff said many mothers are more career-oriented because they now have dependents and also want to be professional role models for their children.

There are, however, laws that protect pregnant women from being discriminated against in the workplace.

"Pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination and is prohibited under Canadian human rights legislation," says Allan Wells, an employment lawyer and partner at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

He says pregnant women are also entitled to accommodation, which means changes to their work environment or job that protect their well-being and that of their unborn child.

For example, a woman who stands all day for her job may need to sit on a stool for parts of the day. Or, she may not be able to do physical activity such as heavy lifting or constant forward bending. Pregnant women may also be unable to travel after a certain stage of the pregnancy, depending on what a doctor recommends.

"The challenge for employers is the tension between being accommodating and paternalistic," Mr. Wells said.

He says some employers can be overly protective, which can triggers complaints from women who say they're not being allowed to do their job. Mr. Wells recommends employers work with pregnant employees on an individual basis to find solutions to any concerns.

Special to The Globe and Mail