HR person at my company asked if I intend to have kids. What to do?
April 8, 2014 7:46 AM   Subscribe

I was waiting with HR person and my manager for a meeting room to come free for a meeting about a project I want to start at work. HR manager casually asked about my upcoming wedding (I'm engaged and getting married soon), then asked if we'll have kids soon. How do I handle this?

For context: I stammered a non response ('I don't like to talk about that') then changed the subject. I am a woman working in a male-dominated field; HR person and manager are both men. I am very anxious about being sidelined professionally if/when we decide to have kids and never, ever discuss it at work.

My question is twofold:
1. Am I overreacting here?
2. What do I do next? Should I escalate? If so, how?

I'd very much appreciate how to proceed!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I think you're overreacting. I think this person was just making conversation. If you have reason to believe your company would actively try to discriminate against pregnant women that's one thing, but with the information you've provided here I would write it off as small talk.
posted by something something at 7:48 AM on April 8, 2014 [25 favorites]

People ask these questions because they are making conversation. HR people are just people. They're curious about how their coworkers lives are going.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:50 AM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm assuming that he was asking as a nosy parker, not an HR guy, but day-um, you'd think he'd be hip to this sort of thing.

If you're bugged, I'd go to him and say, "You know, I was kind of taken aback by your asking me if I was planning to have kids. I'm super-sensitive to being sidelined professionally, what with being a woman in a field dominated by men, so it's a sore point with me."

He may have facepalmed himself right after asking you and he may be freaking out that you'll report him or something. I think a friendly, 'I'm sure you didn't mean that the way it sounded' conversation should set things right.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:51 AM on April 8, 2014 [25 favorites]

I think you handled it fine. I agree that the guy was probably making small talk- sometimes people just don't think about how nosy they are! My non-answer to such questions is usually to say, "oh, I don't really know, we'll see what happens", and leave it at that. People generally take the hint.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:52 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm of two minds here. This was unprofessional, but from the context, it seems like it was the "not thinking" brand of unprofessional rather than the "trying to undermine anonymous's career" brand of unprofessional. I think your response was totally appropriate: making it clear that it was an inappropriate question to ask (that made you uncomfortable) is the perfect way to get someone to think before asking a question like this.

It's too bad that this type of small talk can cause angst, although I totally understand the reasons why questions like this make people uncomfortable.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:52 AM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't see how you overreacted, since you didn't really react! All you did was not answer a question that it's perfectly OK not to answer. And it's completely reasonable for you to want to have control of that information at work -- I'm sure the HR director was just making conversation but that's no reason for you to talk about things you don't want to talk about. "Oh, who knows?" is a perfectly good answer here, and no reason to escalate unless further questions indicate that HR is on purpose trying to get an answer out of you on this.
posted by escabeche at 7:54 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like small talk, but even if it wasn't the question calls for a breezy non-answer and a subject change: "Oh, maybe someday, who knows. Hey, what's happening now that the company picnic is getting rescheduled?"
posted by Dip Flash at 7:54 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Based on what you wrote here, I wouldn't be concerned about this one comment.

Just stay focused on doing great work and building strong professional relationships with people you like and trust.

I find writing to be very soothing for things I worry about/overreact to. If it makes you feel better, just write down who said what, on what date, in what context, and keep that information at home. If it's a one-off (as I think it is), you'll run across this note someday years down the road and laugh it off. But if it's the start of a pattern, you might find it reassuring to have your documentation beginning when the pattern began.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:58 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your concern is not unwarranted, this topic comes up on those HR blogs (Like the Evil HR lady one) all the time, though it does sound like this was just smalltalk. I agree with Dip Flash's take.

When in doubt let Miss Manners be your guide: "It's not anything I'm thinking about tonight."
posted by Wretch729 at 7:59 AM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Woman in a male dominated field AND the HR person is a dude? Yeah I'd be concerned! But only as much as any other woman who gets 'mommy-tracked.' I don't think you will be actively discriminated against NOW but this stuff is always in people's minds. When is she gonna pop out some kids (and take a year off)? Are we going to lose her in the middle of an important project?

Next time bluff, obfuscate and lie - oh I dunno, it depends, I lurve my career, kids aren't a priority, la la la

But no need to escalate right now or even draw direct attention to it. Just hold your cards close to your chest is all.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:02 AM on April 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think you reacted just fine, but you should probably leave it for now. I think he was just making conversation, but he's an HR person and he should know better. I don't think this is a problem in and of itself (more of a signifier of potential problems), and it doesn't rise to the level of harassment, so I don't think escalating will help.
posted by mskyle at 8:16 AM on April 8, 2014

HR people are just people.

Sure, but that was a very loaded question. The HR person should have known better. Even making small talk, there are somethings they should have known to avoid. Her supervisor would have been equally wrong to ask, for example.
posted by bonehead at 8:16 AM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

And, no I don't think you are over-reacting, though for now, I would let things go.

But I'd think twice about going to that HR person for any tricky issues in the future.
posted by bonehead at 8:18 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Dear HR person, Can we please schedule a brief meeting to talk about a concern I have? Yesterday when we were talking before [meeting], you asked me about my plans to have children. The question concerned me because I do not want to worry that any plans I have about my family might affect my employment at [company]. It would be nice to talk about this for a few minutes."

This is insane overkill and may affect her office life. If you must, how about...talking to the person directly?
posted by Kruger5 at 8:19 AM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

Am HR Person. Can confirm we are people.

The guy has probably already forgotten your answer (and that he asked the question), I wouldn't even begin to assume he was trying to pry you for information to sideline your career. I would assume he was a guy alone in a conference room with you with nothing else to talk about except the one thing he knows is coming up, your marriage, so he asked the next "logical" question. I agree that this is more just guy asking stupid question than HR OFFICIAL asking stupid question.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

There have been some good discussions about this very thing over at Ask A Manager. I was interested to learn that marital status and children questions are perfectly legal to ask. The key is that the company isn't allowed to make hiring decisions based on them (assuming you are in the US).

From the way your wrote your question, "casually" asked about the wedding, it certainly sounds innocent. That's a reasonable path for the conversation, isn't it? Do you have any reason to think they have a history of discrimination?
posted by Beti at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is insane overkill and may affect her office life.

I'm on the fence about this one. On one hand it says don't even think of f*ing with me, I play hardball. On the other hand it IS overkill.

I do know someone who was passed over a promotion because of this. I told her to lawyer up and play hardball but she's just not that type. Sadly. (No one likes the guy who was hired instead of her.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:25 AM on April 8, 2014

It's unprofessional and not an appropriate subject for smalltalk during the hiring process, but my first assumption would be cluelessness rather than intentional undermining. I wouldn't reinvigorate the discussion about your potential reproductive plans by bringing it up again with the HR person or escalating at this point. If the subject doesn't stay dropped, that's a different story, of course.

I think your response, stammering and all, was actually totally fine and a completely appropriate reply.

(And hey, if he's privately wondering why you seemed taken aback, well...maybe this will make him think about that. There's a lot of unintentional, unexamined sexism that helps hold up the glass ceiling.)
posted by desuetude at 8:26 AM on April 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Without knowing the people directly involved it's a hard call to make. On balance, most likely it was just small talk and for all anyone here knows it's a question he may well ask of males as well of females so assuming it's a gendered only convo starter may be wrong. I think non or deflectory answers are just fine in this situation and would caution against escalation without more concrete examples/worries.
Not the best conversation line for them to start as a professional, but a very human line of conversation to start.
posted by edgeways at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2014

From the way your wrote your question, "casually" asked about the wedding, it certainly sounds innocent. That's a reasonable path for the conversation, isn't it?
Is it? Quite apart from the HR stuff, I consider it pretty rude to ask acquaintances about their plans to have or not have children. That's on my official list of questions that are off-limits to anyone except close friends.

I think an HR person should know better, but I don't think you're going to do yourself any favors by pressing it right now. I would make a note of what happened and document it in case you ever need it, and then move on.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:33 AM on April 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

if this wasn't casual conversation rest secure in the fact that you work with the dumbest HR person in the entire United States.
posted by JPD at 8:39 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

From interactions I've had with HR people, it seems like they've had less structural inequality training than the more thoughtful folks in the male-dominated fields they administer over. There's no Women in HR groups in the sense of Society of Women Engineers, e.g.

So your alarm is understandable but this chap was probably being an innocent idiot.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:47 AM on April 8, 2014

It was *probably* just small talk, but yes, HR should know better. Either way, you didn't give anything resembling a concrete answer, so you're ahead of the game.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:48 AM on April 8, 2014

I don't think this warrants any immediate action, but I think it's something you ought to document in excruciating detail.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:59 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the UK, asking such a question would expose the employer or potential employer to all kinds of legal liabilities and no properly trained interviewer would ever ask such a thing even if they were thinking it. I expect things are different in the US.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 9:07 AM on April 8, 2014

No, in an interview situation in the US certainly no interviewer would (should) ask such a thing.

This doesn't sound like that situation though. Sounds like cluelessness. I'd let it drop, but document it, juuuuuust in case.
posted by gaspode at 9:16 AM on April 8, 2014

Kids are such a normal chatty topic and I really don't think they should be, considering the physical, emotional, and financial changes having them does to a person. So I am right there with you. I HATED it when my coworkers would ask (sometimes more pointedly than others) if/when my husband and I were going to have kids. My standard answer was to smirk at my belly, look back up at the asker and say "Not today!"
posted by jillithd at 9:17 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

i like moonorb's answer. document this rude exchange, so you will have an extra hammer in your toolbox should you need it.
posted by bruce at 9:22 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Married woman here!

Just confirming how unbelievably effed up it is to have pretty much anyone ask about your reproductive or family plans. Sweet Gesus, but is it ever a privacy violating type topic of conversation to be on the receiving end of!!

The HR folks I worked along side way back in the day would NEVER screw up and go down this road, unless it was on purpose. Honestly.

I find this is the sort of clueless questioning men and women from older generations do engage in, FWIW.

OP, while I can't think of anything you can do about it, you prolly should document the incident in a diary somewhere offsite and offline from your place of employment. Just to be safe.

You're correct to notice this was inappropriate. People change slowly, though, so stay mindful and calm unless you start to notice repucussions down the road.

I hope your career goes well and this never comes up again.
posted by jbenben at 9:29 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, you are absolutely overreacting, and so are the people telling you to complain or document this. What your HR guy did was socially clumsy and pointless and may in fact suggest that to him, women=babies, but it is in no way illegal or even unethical.

As pointed out above, what's illegal is to refuse to hire someone because of their marital/reproductive status. Nothing your HR guy did was in any way actionable. At worst it's mildly clueless.

Please let this go.
posted by Susan PG at 9:31 AM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

It does sound like it may have been casual small talk. A good response would have been, "I don't know, what's the company's policy on that?" ha ha, and laugh it off. It's not as if he were asking to make a baby with you. Sometimes a casual question is just a casual question.
posted by myselfasme at 9:37 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

HR guy asked you a clumsy question. You didn't answer it. You can't argue that whatever happens with this project is a result of your reproductive plans, because you didn't share them.

What do you have to gain by antagonizing HR at this point? Even if you got this rep disciplined and "won" you will be known to them as potentially litigious. Not a great reputation to have.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:01 AM on April 8, 2014

I would document it for yourself, and then keep an eye out for future questioning of that sort from your supervisor or HR as the new project moves forward (or if it stalls out). I don't think you're overreacting, given the context of starting a new project -- wondering if they're actually trying to suss out whether you'll be around to finish it is a totally valid concern. That doesn't mean that's what this particular guy was doing, but if it turns into a pattern of behavior in the office, you'll want to have times and dates and names already written down in case you do need to escalate.
posted by jaguar at 10:03 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know women who have been let go when having kids. It's quite illegal, employers will lose every case that goes to court. An HR person can't ask about kids innocently, their job revolves around careers and mostly the measurable part of that investment (money and time more than productivity or diversity). I'm not in the US and have no recommendation on if or how to escalate.
posted by Tobu at 10:44 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

You know why I think it was silly small talk? Because no thinking HR person in their right mind would ask that question of a female applicant.
Not today -- not after the decades of battles women have fought, and are still fighting, to be taken seriously and equally in the job market. Yes, some companies DO discriminate. Yes, some companies DO prefer the 'stability' of a male workforce.
I defer to women on tactics, and most here seem to say yes, keep a record and drop it.
But I'm glad you're alert to it. This great social movement is not over.
posted by LonnieK at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

HR people should be trained not to ask any kind of question that could potentially open the company up to a discrimination lawsuit. His question was not clumsy. It was borderline illegal (in the US). This company must be kind of lackadaisacal to not train their HR department in such a basic requirement of not getting the company in legal trouble. This does not bode well for the professionalism of the company at large.
posted by matildaben at 11:08 AM on April 8, 2014

HR here - I think you handled it perfectly and would recommend making a note of it (send an email to yourself with the pertinent details so you've got a time stamped record). You may even want to talk to the HR person's boss (as a teachable moment) so he/she can receive some much-needed guidance on better casual conversation topics.

It does sound like (poorly chosen) small talk and I'd be surprised based on what you've shared if the HR person had ill-intent.

One thing that sometimes gets lost when these situations come up - asking about this type of information is not illegal or discriminatory. Only if it's used as the basis of a decision (regarding employment) does it become actionable. While it's absolutely recommended *not* to ask these types of personal/non-work essential questions, it's not an automatic reason to seek legal council either.
posted by Twicketface at 11:35 AM on April 8, 2014

60 Seconds and You're Hired is often recommended on AskMe and covers exactly this in its Illegal Questions section.

Its recommendation: saying “I have no plans to have children in the near future” or “Oh no, I’m not pregnant” with a smile and then dropping the topic.

It sounds like you did well.
posted by suprenant at 12:26 PM on April 8, 2014

I got married last August and since I have been asked no less than a thousand times "so when are you having kids?". And I am a dude married to another dude. It is really weird and personal stuff but there is something in our culture that makes people ask. Ick.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:35 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

60 Seconds and You're Hired is often recommended on AskMe and covers exactly this in its Illegal Questions section.

Even though many people call these questions "illegal," they are not actually illegal in and of themselves. There is no law against those questions. If someone asks you one of these questions, that does not mean you can sue and win.

It's stupid to ask those questions because if an employer asks one and then takes adverse action against you, then it is a lot easier to argue that the company took the adverse action because they are discriminating against some protected class. Which is expensive for the company.
posted by grouse at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Here's the thing: whether or not it's clueless or deliberate, if you'd answered with a "Yes, we're hoping for next year," the HR guy would have had it in his memory bank to file away and think about and use (subconsciously or consciously) come promotion time, or whatever the heck it is he does at your work. That's why this question is so dangerous and inappropriate.

I would lie, lie, lie to that question if I ever intended to have kids. I would lie until the day the stick turned blue, and possibly even then for the next three months if I could get away with it that long. Technically it shouldn't be a factor to anyone until the "too late" point is reached anyway, right?

Oh, and: "I know women who have been let go when having kids. It's quite illegal, employers will lose every case that goes to court."

Uh, all they have to do is make up some other reason to fire her, like she was late on Tuesday or had the wrong hair color or had spitup on her boob and that was unprofessional. They can certainly fire her for having a kid in the US, they just can't specifically SAY that publicly as the reason.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:44 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been thinking about this today and it seems to me, OP, that you are the only one who can answer your second question. We don't work with you (I don't think :-) so we don't know the culture of your workplace. Maybe look around the company with this conversation in your mind and ask yourself some questions:

How do supervisors treat women generally? How to they treat parents? How do they react when parents have to leave to take care of a kid? Are there women in positions of responsibility? Does it seem like other women have been penalized for having kids? Most of all, what kind of person is the HR guy? And what kind of person is his boss?

Maybe this will help you figure out how serious you need to take this. Male-dominated doesn't necessarily equal anti-woman or anti-parent or anti-kid. I'll trot out my favorite saying here: "don't attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity".

Good luck!
posted by Beti at 7:07 PM on April 8, 2014

I would have simply said, "We haven't decided" and left it at that.
posted by aryma at 7:23 PM on April 8, 2014

Yes, you are absolutely overreacting, and so are the people telling you to complain or document this.

We can give the clumsy HR bot the benefit of the doubt without being stupid here.

You're correct that merely asking the question, itself, is not illegal. What it is, however, is potential evidence that the OP's family plans are relevant to her employment situation. If, at any point in the future, her employer does take some sort of adverse action on account her family status (or gender), evidence of that intent (as jenfullmoon notes) is going to be incredibly difficult to come by, so having a good paper-trail of this particular event, even if it is not shared with the company, is a good insurance policy.

If the OP waits to create this documentation until the bad thing happens, her documentation is going to be questionable and subject to a lot of scrutiny. If she creates that now and keeps a record of it, it will be much more trustworthy.

So, no, it's not overreacting in the slightest to suggest she document it. On the contrary, it would be quite foolish not to.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:57 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

HR, over all others, should know better than to ask such a boneheaded question. Half their job is to make sure bosses don't fuck themselves and their organizations by asking such boneheaded questions.

Sure, it was probably innocently intended, but that the problem. There's a lot at stake for you in how you respond, the stakes for male superiors in a male dominated company are next to zero for being minor boneheads. Uneven playing ground, exhibit A. To me it smacks of casual, thoughtless entitlement that is intensely frustrating precisely because it's so easily dismissed as innocently intended.

If I were Queen of the organization I would very much like to know if one of my staff behaved so incompetently. I'd have a big ass Come to Jesus meeting with dude and send him back to HR for Dummies for opening the company up to liability.

Unfortunately the stakes for you in if and how you alert dude's boss are also high. Uneven playing ground, exhibit B. You handled it well and there's no clear cut right or wrong way to manage this from here. Personally it works out better for me in the long run to address minor boundary violations early on. If you do decide to bring this to the bosses do keep it in writing and perhaps frame it lightly and good humored. Something like 'I think Joe left his HR hat at home the other day, he asked me if my fiancée and I were planning to have kids soon. He's a terrific manager and I know it was well intended, but it's one of those things that could easily be misinterpreted. Just thought you should know.'

You know the tone and temperature of your workplace best and you know your own interests better than anyone. Proceed accordingly. Again, you handled it well and are certainly not over-reacting.
posted by space_cookie at 7:01 AM on April 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've been thinking about this question over the past couple of days. The thing is, your needs and the needs of the company are not perfectly aligned. The company wants to do future planning, it wants to not have continuity problems, it wants to invest in people who are going to be in it for the long haul. From the company's short-term perspective, if you are planning to have kids soon, it makes sense to mommy-track you -- to not give you the plum assignment, not promote you, not invest in you.

A smart company doesn't do that, because a smart company knows it's short-term thinking -- that if it treats a new or prospective mother the same as everyone else, it'll be repaid in loyalty. Plus ethics, plus legalities, plus other reasons.

Your company may or may not be smart that way. It's entirely possible your HR guy might mommy-track you in his head, if you have said yes, we're hoping to have kids soon. So it was smart not to say that. Because if the company did mommy track you there is almost certainly no way to fix that: unlikely you'd have a legal case, and even if you did, legal action is a blunt instrument that doesn't really solve the problem.

But I think you should do some thinking about how to handle this kind of thing should it ever arise again. A smooth lie, along the lines of what jenfulmoon said, is probably the right answer.

The answer you actually gave ("don't want to talk about it") was the wrong answer. I don't blame you: he was dumb and you were surprised. But when you said that, what you were in effect acknowledging is that your interests are different from his. And it's better, especially because of the power imbalance, for that to not to acknowledged. Because if you don't get the promotion, there is unlikely to be anything you can do about it.

So yeah, you should lie. Smoothly and with as much grace as possible. That sucks, but it's an inherently awkward situation, and your goal is to successfully advance your own interests. If you were ever to get to a point where documentation or a lawsuit were your best bet -- well, that is a very bad place to be. Your goal should be to avoid getting there.
posted by Susan PG at 10:56 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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