A worker struggling with IVF feels sidelined after seeking support from management. How should she proceed?

An expert advises to first assume that management are acting with the best intentions before seeking clarification and remedy

'If she feels she needs support, then give specific examples of what’s required and for how long.' Photograph: iStock

Over recent years efforts have been made to make the workplace more family friendly. Specifically, an increasing number of companies have introduced new pregnancy, fertility, surrogacy and equal parental leave initiatives.

Support for those going through IVF has also increased with the introduction of a publicly funded fertility service and more employers making a contribution to the significant costs involved. Fertility problems affect one in six couples so making it easier to talk about them in a workplace setting is a welcome development. However, some worry that being too truthful about what they’re going through can have unintended consequences – something one employee discovered when she told her manager she was struggling because of difficulties with IVF.

Her manager responded by assigning a colleague to help her, but the colleague started taking over and she quickly felt sidelined. Now, with the next wave of projects due for team leader selection, she is pretty sure she’s wasting her time applying and is at a loss to know how to remedy her situation.

Catherine Hayes, managing associate for the employment team with Lewis Silkin Ireland, suggests starting from a point that assumes her colleague and manager are acting in good faith and with the best intentions: she said she was struggling, and they are trying to help. However, they may have misunderstood what supports she needs, if any.


More companies offering leave and supports for IVFOpens in new window ]

“Exactly what this employee said to her manager, and in what context, is relevant here,” says Hayes. “It might be helpful for her to approach her manager and/or colleague and to explain that while she appreciates their involvement, she is still the leader on the project. She also needs to clarify her understanding of her responsibilities and those of her colleague.

“If she feels she needs support, then give specific examples of what’s required and for how long. She could also take the opportunity to emphasise to her manager that she is interested in a leadership role in the next wave of projects and to outline the reasons why she should be considered.”

A good outcome would be for a frank conversation to reset the relationship and for the problem to be solved. If it isn’t, Hayes says the employee should check if her employer has any specific policies or supports for employees who are undergoing IVF and/or offers other types of support under its employee wellbeing programme, if it has one.

Secondly, the employee should clearly identify the specific things that are making her feel “locked out”. Walsh advises setting these out in a note backed up with any evidence she has to support her concerns.

“A short note, with neutral language, will often have more impact than a longer one,” she says. “She could then ask her manager for a meeting to outline specifically why she feels as she does and how this could be remedied. Clear lines of communication can often resolve these matters, but unfortunately not always.”

If the employee has reservations about taking the issue to her manager again, Hayes says an alternative would be to approach HR and see if they would be willing to facilitate the conversation.

But suppose she tries all of these suggestions and they don’t work. What happens then? “At that point she has the option of raising an informal or formal complaint,” says Hayes. “Ask HR for a copy of the employer’s grievance policy and prevention of bullying, discrimination and harassment at work policy. Read it carefully to check what their process is for dealing with complaints and concerns.”

Hayes adds that depending on the employee’s personal circumstances, she could also have protection under discrimination law

Hayes says the actions of the manager and colleague could amount to bullying, depending on what they are doing and its impact on her. “Bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour in the course of employment which could be reasonably regarded as undermining someone’s right to dignity at work,” she says. “It can include exclusion, isolation, being treated less favourably than others in similar roles, belittling your opinion, excessive monitoring of your work, manipulating job role or targets, blaming you for things outside of your control or withholding information that is required for you to carry out your role.

“Bullying does not include expressing differences of opinion strongly, offering constructive feedback, guidance or advice which is unwelcome, ordinary performance management or workplace disagreements or differences of opinion.”

Hayes adds that, depending on the employee’s personal circumstances, she could also have protection under discrimination law. “Discrimination is less favourable treatment because of a protected ground. The protected grounds are gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community,” she says. “Harassment is also a form of discrimination. Harassment is unwanted conduct related to a protected ground, which violates an employee’s dignity and creates an intimidating, humiliating or offensive environment.”

If the employee feels her treatment amounts to bullying or discrimination, she can raise a complaint, which her employer is obliged to investigate. If she is not satisfied by what ensues, she has the option of taking her complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission and/or to the Health and Safety Authority to establish if the employer has failed in its duty of care to protect employees from bullying.

Another option would be a personal injuries claim if the employee felt her health had been significantly affected or she had grounds for constructive dismissal. “What needs to be appreciated here is that this is a significant and potentially risky process so it’s wise to seek legal advice first,” says Hayes.