Announcing a Pregnancy at Work If You Have an Unsupportive Boss

You Might Have a Toxic Boss and You Don’t Know it Yet: When to Ignore Traditional Advice Around Announcing a Pregnancy at Work.

If you feel anxious about telling your boss or company about a pregnancy, remember the people who truly support you, will always support you. I’m taking my unfortunate experience over a wrongful termination to warn others how to avoid the same fate, or at the very least, to recognize the warning signs.

Like many working moms and expecting mothers, I was extremely anxious to talk to my company about being pregnant. In theory, I shouldn’t have been, our company has a 12 week paid parental leave policy, and several men in the past year have taken it. But being on the executive team with an entire Engineering Department under me, I didn’t want to let anyone down. I was the first mom who was going to need to take parental leave at the early stage startup. In addition, it had been over a year since my last raise, and the company was going through a compensation adjustment cycle…it seemed rational to not want a thing like maternity leave to be on my boss’ mind when factoring my new salary. In any case, I didn’t expect that the same week I told the company I was pregnant would be the same week I was forcibly told to leave my role.

So now you know, the worst possible outcome of being pregnant at work isn’t not getting a raise, it’s getting fired.

I know the immediate reaction is, “isn’t that illegal?” Yes, mostly, but it's really hard to prove that your "protected class status" is the reason a boss fired you. It is also hard to prove even clear-cut discrimation (gender-based, racial, or otherwise) in a court of law. This is especially the case in an at-will employment state, where any bad boss can fire you without cause.

Some Advice

Not sure you’ll be supported at your company when you work up to a parental leave? Read on for some tips. First off, it’s totally acceptable to initially contact HR, and even email HR and your boss before the verbal conversation. Most advice out there says to have a face-to-face conversation first with your boss, which out of respect, sounds like the right thing to do. But, if your boss is a bully, and you’ve chickened out talking about it, or your manager is actively avoiding the topic, at least you have it in writing before any potential retaliation can happen.

In hindsight, I gave my boss too much respect and hoped that she’d be supportive, but really, my team and the managers under me were my support group. It would have been totally fine to tell my direct reports first during 1:1s about my pregnancy, and had some people truly be happy for me before “breaking the news” to my boss. I was shocked to learn how cold-hearted my boss was, and upon reflection, I knew I had been gaslit and treated as less than human. More on that below.

But first, here’s an example email of what announcing the news could look like:

Subject: Parental Leave

Dear (HR rep) and (boss),

I’m writing to inform you of the exciting news for me and my family. I’m expecting a baby in August, and I plan to take the company provided leave all at once, and be back in action in November.

I’m making a coverage plan for my duties and look forward to working with you to hash out the details to make sure my team is well supported during and leading up to my leave.

Thank you,


The Red Flags

In hindsight, there were a few things that were giving me clear indications that I wasn’t being supported at work. In fact, I truly believe if I stayed on and hadn’t been fired between notifying the company and my maternity leave starting, my boss 100% would’ve made my life a living hell, heartless to the fact I had a tiny human growing inside me. Talk with HR to officially inform the company, and don’t worry about your boss being “first to know” about the pregnancy, especially if you notice these behaviors:

1. Lack of Specific Constructive Feedback

If you’ve been given critical feedback, and then you’ve asked for clarification and details, but the response is generic and non-specific …then likely the criticizer is just messing with you. For example, if you hear absolutes like “everyone thinks”, “you always” or “you never”…and you say, “Can you please tell me about a time when I said or did something to make someone feel that way?” But if they can’t give you details, and just want to rail on how horrible you are…then this person does not care about your personal growth and improvement. I racked my brain thinking, “how can I get my boss to give me better feedback?” “If this is what people think of me, how can she help me communicate better, etc…?” When in reality, she wasn’t there to help, it was all bogus claims, and I wasted time thinking I had a problem to solve that didn’t exist.

One way to get a sanity check on a situation like this is to ask for 360 feedback from your peers or others on your team. And definitely talk directly to “so-and-so” if a manager is trying to tell you something along the lines of, “so-and-so thinks you are difficult to work with.” If there’s no validation of the critical feedback that your boss is insisting on, then don’t buy into it. Also, be aware of "flying monkeys" - the cronies a bad manager surrounds themself with to co-bully others. Thank people for their feedback, whatever it is, improve on what matters, take nothing else personally, and move on with being awesome.

2. Lack of Positive Feedback

If the only time you hear that you're doing something well is when it’s followed by critical or negative feedback, something is wrong.

I make it a point to thank people for their contributions, for stepping up, taking initiative and for doing good work immediately when it happens. It might be a DM, “thanks, the slides look great!” Or a more public mentioning on our company #kudos channel of something outstanding they’ve just done.

Even small recognitions here and there show that your boss cares about you and what you’re doing for the company. Being on the executive team, it was easy for me to think, “Well I don’t need any praise, I just need to show my team what they mean to me…” In retrospect, as long as someone is above you, it’s their role to give you positive feedback and acknowledge a job well done.

3. Taking Credit for Your Work

Sometimes this can be blatant, like presenting your content and work output without acknowledging you.

But other times it can be more subtle. For example, someone gives kudos to your boss for something you actually did, but they didn’t properly deflect or share the compliments to you. It’s easy to ignore if it doesn’t happen often, but it’s still a red flag.

4. Enabling (or even Encouraging) Finger Pointing

This one can sometimes be the flip side of taking credit for your work, such as an over emphasis of your contribution to any controversial idea. For example, even if your boss agrees with you, they might highlight your stance on something that shareholders may find discouraging.

I remember early on when my boss joined, talking with her about the renowned finger pointing culture at her previous company. I had said I was extremely results oriented and interested in collaborating to fix problems together, instead of placing blame unfairly on any one person or team. I should’ve realized back then that her lack of response showed there wasn’t agreement in that view.

Fast forward a few months, when a peer close to my boss (cue flying monkey) excessively, and with inaccurate information, pointed fingers at my team during an executive meeting, I was puzzled at why my boss stood by and let that bad behavior happen. I asked what she would do next time if it happened again. Her answer was, “Why can’t you stand up for yourself?”

Needless to say, that’s not normal behavior for a manager who has your back.

5. Burning Feelings of Implicit Bias

This one is really tricky, especially because as a minority, you don’t want racial, gender, or other biases to ever be top of mind. You err on the side of hoping you’ve surrounded yourself only with people who see your value from the quality of your work and your worth as a human by the way you treat others.

Sometimes people may be threatened by or envious of your personal success or your rapport with others, and they retaliate with baseless criticisms. This may be simply because they don’t think you deserve the positive things you have - whether it's your title, your compensation, your relationships, your advanced degrees, your big house, or whatever. Biases, both implicit and explicit, amplify jealousy. It’s an awful realization to come to. Unfortunately, it is quite clear now that my boss mostly wanted to fire me just to show that she had some power over me and my otherwise awesome life.

No Applause for Not Being a Jerk

All I know is through this experience, I’m never going to make an employee feel afraid to talk to me about taking parental leave…I’ll be nothing but supportive and excited for their family, so they don’t have to stress about work. Especially if that employee is a birth mother, who’ll have 100x more physical and mental stressors to deal with, before and after the pregnancy, and for a while afterwards if she’s breastfeeding too! It should be obvious that the first thing a manager should say when you announce a pregnancy, or any personal upheaval, is, “All I care about is your health and happiness, I’ll figure out how to best support you.”

Additional Resources

If you’ve been asked (or suspect you will be asked) to step down, resign, or otherwise anticipate losing your job after announcing a pregnancy, consult employment lawyers in your state. A lawyer can help you navigate workplace complaints and negotiate separation agreements on your behalf.

There are a lot of career advice books out there to help navigate difficult conversations at work. “The Fifth Trimester” by Lauren Smith Brody has a chapter about preparing for parental leave, and negotiating raises and flexible arrangements when you return to work. And, in case you do everything right and your company still manages a way to terminate you, check out “Involuntary Exit” by Robin Merle. The book is full of inspiring stories of women’s experiences of workplace upheaval and the personal growth that follows.

Wow! This is incredibly thorough, thank you so much for sharing the pointers and very actionable advice!
@teresaman Thanks for the note! I was surprised to find very little advice out there about announcing pregnancies at work... and nothing out there about having to do it with a difficult boss. I hope other women find some solace if they are in similar situations.
This is amazing! Especially love the email template - it’s so well articulated yet concise.Thanks so much for sharing! I feel like this isn’t talked about enough and having these conversations openly is so important
Thank you! I’m glad you found it useful…I wish someone told me when I needed it!
Sorry you went through all this at a time that you needed support most! Pregnancy is a trip (I'm expecting my first) and I'm grateful the company I work at has been so supportive every, single step of the way. When I read stories like this it really makes me think about whats important. Work takes up so much of our lives, having an employer/boss that treats you right is so incredibly important. I also just want to add that there is an amazing lady lawyer on instagram who posts excellent insights into employment rights with her focus on mothers and unfair maternity related dismissals etc. She's US based: - for anyone having difficulties in this area she is well worth a follow. I'm not even US based, but I love seeing her posts and what she stands for!
Ditto on “ Work takes up so much of our lives, having an employer/boss that treats you right is so incredibly important.” !!! Thanks for telling us about The Mama Attorney!
I experienced all of these red flags and MORE(!) and was wrongfully terminated from a startup. At first I wondered if we worked for the same company! After consulting with attorneys, I discovered the same realities you mention. "It's really hard to prove that your "protected class status" is the reason a boss fired you. It is also hard to prove even clear-cut discrimination (gender-based, racial, or otherwise) in a court of law. This is especially the case in an at-will employment state, where any bad boss can fire you without cause." After my termination, I met more ex-employees who were also "quietly and suddenly removed" from their roles over the years. Ex-employees who like me, had stellar performance reviews, made performance bonuses and had no signals of underperforming. We have a long way to go before any of this changes. I absolutely hate that most people are still under the illusion that employees only get fired for doing something wrong. But it helps that more people are talking about their experiences with wrongful termination. It certainly deserves more air time.
Thanks @Malorie30 for sharing your story. It is somewhat comforting but also very depressing to know we’re not alone. I really wonder what it’ll take to change things… one thing that may help is as a society, we need to stop idolizing toxic leadership traits.