Worker Rights

Q I met my team in a hotel bar during a medical industry conference and a pregnant staffer ordered a martini. My other staffers were uncomfortable, and potential clients may have been as well. What should I do?

Name Withheld

First, let's dispense with the obvious. If you don't want your employees to drink, don't arrange to meet them in a bar.

Medically speaking, your employee's decision to down a martini is ambiguous. Although the Surgeon General warns expectant mothers against drinking, opinions are all over the place as to how much alcohol--if any--pregnant women can safely consume. Legally speaking, however, your employee's decision is just that: your employee's decision. "The employer's hands are tied," says Phyllis Hartman, an employee-relations expert at PGHR Consulting in Ingomar, Pennsylvania. "If the employer tells the woman, 'You can't do that or we're going to take disciplinary action,' then the woman could sue."

In fact, in 1991 the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), a Milwaukee automotive company, violated pregnancy antidiscrimination laws when it barred women of childbearing age from working with lead. That decision set a precedent that prohibits employers from trying to protect their workers' unborn children. (Federal antidiscrimination laws affect companies with 15 workers or more, but most states apply them to companies with as few as five employees.)

Since your employee broke no law, the fact that colleagues took offense is just too bad. "An employer can't act as a police force every time someone is made uncomfortable," says Elizabeth Grossman, a lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York City. But your employee might respond to an argument related to clients' perceptions. Managers have the right to prevent employees from hurting profits, says Brian Clark, an employment lawyer at Clifton Budd & DeMaria. Your best bet? Have a private conversation. Tell your employee that, given the nature of your business, it's a poor image to project, Clark suggests.

To reduce the likelihood of this happening again, ask your insurance provider to set up a corporate prenatal program, says Barry Barnett, a principal in the health care group at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City. Many carriers provide free counseling and testing at no extra charge to help pregnant women stay healthy. Encourage your employees to sign up by offering incentives, such as a free car seat. Such a program will show you to be a caring employer, not an overbearing one.

Incentives

Q The fulfillment manager at my three-year-old company is very valuable and eager to improve his family's financial situation. He receives a competitive salary, but I haven't set up an incentive program. What are my options?

Paul Marcus
Founder
Brookbend Furniture
Boston

Your employee has made it clear that he won't be fobbed off with a bigger office or more exalted title. So how do you cost-effectively buy this paragon's love?

First, make sure that wage you mentioned really is competitive. A Salary.com survey reports $84,931 is the median salary for fulfillment executives at companies with fewer than 500 employees. Be sure to figure in the cost of living for Boston. Then, enrich the wage with performance-based incentives that explicitly tie sowing to reaping.

Such one-to-one management can be tough to execute, especially for HR-less organizations. But technology, as always, is your friend. A number of companies offer software that automates performance management. For example, Vurv Technology, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sells a Web-based product (starting at $1,395) that can be tailored to different performance metrics. You might measure your fulfillment manager's percentage of on-time shipments over a three-month period, or the number of products that leave the warehouse undamaged. Set goals together and then encourage him to track his performance online. As he meets and (star that he is) exceeds those goals, he'll know that he's earning a bonus.

How big a bonus? It depends on how much you can afford. Fulfillment executives received a median of $4,600 in short-term incentives last year, according to Salary.com.

If you can't afford a big cash bonus, go the personal route, suggests Penny Morey, managing director at CBIZ Human Capital Service, a consulting firm in Boca Raton, Florida. Ask your employee where he hurts, and see if you can make it better. For example, if transportation is bleeding the family budget, consider leasing a car for him. You can spread the cost over a year and give your staffer more reason to stick tight. Such personalized benefits usually cost less than bonuses and are often more effective, says Rania Sendhom, head of the Employee Benefits Practice at BDO Seidman, a New York City consulting firm. "Anyone can throw money out, but that's not catering to the employee," she says. Which isn't to say some thrown-out money isn't appreciated.

Resources

To learn more about the rules governing pregnant employees, visit the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov/types/pregnancy.html). For more advice and research on employee incentive plans, visit the Society for Human Resources website (shrm.org).