How to Navigate Workplace Questions About Family Planning — Building a Culture of Respect

Indian businesswoman having a serious conversation at work

Questions about reproduction and family planning are surprisingly common in the workplace. While it's illegal for employers to ask about childbearing or family planning during the recruiting process, what about the other scenarios within a candidate's journey where these questions pop up? Potlucks, breakrooms, conference rooms? Handling conflicts in the workplace stemming from unwanted family planning questions can be awkward and uncomfortable for HR leaders, business owners and employees.

With women twice as likely as men to be asked about existing children at work, according to a study published by Samsung Newsroom UK, it may be time for HR leaders and business owners to shine a light on this ever-present challenge and consider an approach to handling these conflicts that includes modeling behaviors for first-line managers. What are the best practices? Are questions about family planning offensive, or just innocent curiosity? What's appropriate and what's not?

It's highly personal

Learning how sensitive the topic of family planning can be is important for HR leaders and business owners because it informs how they handle workplace conflicts involving these types of questions. Family planning often involves a biological decision that alters the human body and drastically changes the priorities of one's life. Some try for many years to conceive and are physically unable to, while others may be born without the ability to do so. Perhaps others, while they can conceive, cannot carry the child to term and experience excruciating loss. Others choose to adopt, foster or explore surrogacy, making family ties that are beyond biology. Others may desire to never become a parent because it better aligns with their goals and priorities.

These are just some of the reasons family planning is a personal — and often private — topic.

Tiffany Davis — division vice president, human resources, human resources outsourcing & national account services — reminds leaders that sometimes an employee's personal life is just that, personal. "Approach the conversation [about family planning] by saying something like 'only if you're comfortable discussing' to show that you respect what the other person may or may not want to share."

Gender inequity in the workplace

It might seem easier to chalk up conflicts over family planning questions to someone being oversensitive to an innocent question. But family planning questions aimed at women perpetuate gender inequity in the workplace. A recent study by Lean In found that women leaders are more likely to report characteristics like gender or being a parent played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion or chance to get ahead. Could this be connected to societal expectations for women to be child bearers first and professionals second?

Davis reminds leaders that business and talent decisions should never be based on family planning decisions. "Well-intentioned leaders might be coming from a good place, but choosing not to promote an employee based on assumptions about their family planning could result in unintentional differential treatment."

Regardless of gender, it's important to take employees at face value and celebrate what they bring to the table at work. Instead of making assumptions or guesses about whether an employee plans to have children one day, train leaders and managers to support employees' personal goals and life plans, whatever they might be. And if at any point, employees are inclined to share that they are planning to have children in the future, managers should lean in by supporting men, women and transgender individuals alike by helping to support parental and family leaves according to the legal requirements in their state.

Davis encourages leaders to rely on their resources when employees do decide to share their family planning challenges. "Leaders aren't expected to have all the answers, but it's important for them when possible to identify opportunities where it may be best to offer or seek additional support for their employees. This could be resources like an Employee Assistance Program or the benefits team."

Under the radar

Gender inequity and bias in the form of expectations for women as child bearers can be delivered in a multitude of ways. Many times, the individual asking questions or making comments doesn't realize they are perpetuating gender inequity. Here are a few examples:

  • Disguised as a compliment — "You'd be such a good mom!"
  • Innocent future plans question — "When are you and your partner planning to have children?"
  • Dismissal of expressed desire — "Oh, you'll change your mind one day!"

Each of these is inappropriate because not only do they place expectations of childbearing and parenthood onto another person, but they assume an assigned role to someone instead of allowing them to define themselves, which both serve to allow gender inequity and societal expectations to continue.

Well-intentioned leaders might be coming from a good place, but promoting an employee based on assumptions about their family planning could result in unintentional differential treatment.

Tiffany Davis, VP of HR, HR outsourcing and national account services at ADP

Handling family planning questions

While there are no formal laws prohibiting coworkers from asking questions about family planning in casual conversations, it's important to educate employees on the inherent gender inequity of family planning questions aimed at women, while men are usually exempt from such questions. How you handle those situations will determine the emotional safety of your workplace. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • SPEAK UP! If you or someone under your leadership is asked a question about having children, do not sweep it under the rug. Having difficult conversations is the only way to undo decades of perhaps well-meaning personal inquiries.
  • Questions about childbearing usually come from a lack of understanding rather than ill intentions.
  • Treat it like a sensitive scenario — these conflicts should never be broadcast to the team.
  • Validate the feelings of the person who was hurt. No one should feel compelled to share their family planning decisions.
  • Aim the difficult conversation forward by focusing on learning new habits rather than condemning the question that was asked.
  • Understand the limits. If the situation escalates and continued questions come after coaching, it's time to get leadership involved. Continuous unwanted questioning on any topic is considered harassment and should not be tolerated in any workplace.

Handling sensitive workplace conflicts is never easy, but neither is dealing with a workplace where inappropriate questions continue unchecked and countless employees are hurt. Promoting equity for all employees and healthy team relationships is a huge part of building a healthy organization.

Download the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Guidebook to dive deeper into the importance of equity within the workplace.