Tania Zarak worked developing original content for Netflix from mid-2018 until her boss, Francisco Ramos terminated her on December 14, 2018. Zarak claims the termination was due to her pregnancy--which is illegal.

Netflix, according to a statement given to Vox, said that they looked into the termination and it was not due to illegal causes and re-emphasized Netflix's commitment to their employees' and their families.

According to the lawsuit, Zarak claims that after she disclosed her pregnancy to her boss (including that she was fatigued and suffered from morning sickness), her boss, Ramos, reduced her role, removed her from communications, excluded her from meetings, and mocked her appearance. When Zarak complained to Human Resources, they told her to go back to Ramos to discuss the situation. However, Human Resources also told Ramos that Zarak had complained.

Zarak says she asked for a transfer to a new department, which Ramos denied, and then fired her.

Now, keep in mind that filed lawsuits only share one side of the story. We may not ever hear Netflix's side of the story if they decide to settle out of court. But, if Zarak's complaints are correct, here is what went wrong.

Pregnancy discrimination is illegal

You can't fire, demote, refuse to hire, or otherwise punish a woman for being pregnant, under federal law, as long as you have 15 or more employees. Netflix definitely qualifies. But, being pregnant doesn't protect you from performance-based terminations. It also doesn't protect you from layoffs. 

This is clearly not a layoff situation, so for Netflix to claim that the termination was not due to her pregnancy, they must have another reason. While 49 or 50 states (including California, where Zarak worked) have at-will employment, in practical matters this doesn't fit. It's possible that Zarak's performance was not what Ramos suspected and he would have ultimately terminated her anyway, regardless of the pregnancy, but the timing looks incredibly suspicious.

Retaliation is also illegal

Let's assume that Zarak was a horrible employee who deserved to be fired. (There is nothing available to say this is the case--this is simply a thought experiment.) If her boss, Ramos, had carefully documented the poor performance, both before and after she announced her pregnancy, it could be a legitimate termination. But, because (according to the lawsuit), she was not on notice and she was terminated within 24 hours of complaining about the alleged discrimination, it opens up the possibility that this was retaliation. In other words, Netflix could be innocent of pregnancy discrimination and still guilty of retaliation for terminating her for complaining.

There was no time for an investigation

Any time an employee walks into an HR person's office (or sends an email, or calls) and complains about illegal behavior, HR should launch an investigation. Likewise, any time a manager wants to terminate an employee, there should be an investigation into the reasons and all the documentation should be carefully pulled together.

Now, it's possible that Ramos had been documenting bad behavior, but even if he had, Zarak's complaint of pregnancy discrimination should have put the termination on hold while HR conducted an investigation. If the timeline in the lawsuit is correct (24 hours between Zarak complaining and her termination) there was not the time to conduct an investigation. You should never, ever take a manager's word for it that he wasn't discriminating, just as you should never take an employee's word that there was discrimination. Always, always, investigate thoroughly.

Lessons for your business

Make sure you are in compliance with all federal, state, and local laws regarding your employees. Federal law is the bare minimum and many jurisdictions have greater protections for your business.

At-will employment doesn't mean you can just fire people whenever. You have to fire them for a legal reason. Wearing mismatched shoes is a legal reason, while pregnancy is not. (Not that I recommend firing someone for mismatched shoes.) 

Always investigate. If necessary, hire someone from the outside to conduct a neutral investigation. If you feel like the employee is a danger to the business, you can always suspend someone until the investigation is complete.

Who will win? Netflix or Zarak?

Because we just have Zarak's side of the story with Netflix's rather bland response, we can't guess. But, if Zarak's story is correct, there's a high chance that she would win in court. That said, most likely, this will settle behind closed doors and we'll never know what happened. Remember, a settlement isn't an admission of guilt.

Published on: Apr 7, 2019
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