Normally about this time I’d be posting links to the Shameless Self Promotion Sunday thread, but it looks like that won’t be necessary this week. Welcome Feministe and Manboobz readers! I am enjoying your fine and well-spelled comments. I would love to hear more thoughts on how we socialize both men and women to say “no” and to respond to “no.” And I’m always looking for questions – email me at email@example.com.
Also, maybe some of you can help me with a doozy of a reader question. I’m especially interested in hearing from higher ed people, occupational health and safety people, lawyers, etc. Here we go:
I have a work-related question that is gnawing at me, and since you tackle those, I figured I’d give it a shot. I work in a chemistry research lab with a number of rather nasty chemicals. We have several undergrad interns who are finishing up their projects, and one of them has recently announced that she’s pregnant to the entire lab minus the people in charge. She goes on like nothing is going on, and she’s still doing experiments with the aforementioned dangerous products.
The reason she doesn’t want to tell the people in charge at the lab is that her immediate boss is also her professor, who still needs to grade one of her exams. The professor in question is a horrible woman and nobody would put it past her to fail the student for being pregnant. Please keep in mind that this is all happening in a country where women’s rights are not as well-defended as in the US, and there isn’t much of a structure to help the student with her problems with the professor. However, if the baby is born with a problem due to exposure to dangerous chemicals, the lab could still be held liable for that.
The pregnant student has made us swear that we wouldn’t tell the bosses behind her back, but considering the number of people who know, there is bound to be a slip-up soon. Furthermore, she has made the rest of the lab extremely uncomfortable with her reckless experimenting, and we’ve more of less decided to sit her down and let her know that what she’s doing is extremely dangerous for her child (we have all already told her this, but so far she hasn’t listened).
My position in this is very difficult in this. I’m a post doc, which means I’m not a student, but I’m not part of management either. I need to think about my relationship with my boss, which I want to be as good as possible (my boss is also the boss of the professor in question – I don’t really work with her, but I don’t want to be on her bad side either). She doesn’t seem to care about what impression she leaves behind once she leaves the lab in a few months, but I’m staying behind and I don’t want this to turn against me. I want to tell the student that if she doesn’t tell her boss soon, I’ll tell my boss.
I know that this is a very difficult ethical question, and I know that I’m slipping into woman-as-vessel territory (and I’m not going to even speculate on the exam problem), but I don’t think that “it goes against my political beliefs to tell pregnant women not to do something” is going to cut it as an excuse when I’m asked if I knew about this, and I don’t want to lie to my boss. Do you have any advice on how not to be a concern troll and how to handle the situation in order to minimize the drama?
Thanks for your attention,
Clever Name Here
Dear Clever Name:
A lot of this stuff is above my pay grade. I have no legal or occupational health and safety expertise. I do teach at a college, and if this were one of my students I would feel justified in telling the student “You have put me in a terrible position, and I am obligated to tell my boss about this so that we can make sure that you are served well and also to protect the school in case of complications,” and then referring the student to my boss and/or student services, etc. but I am in the U.S. and there are some clear guidelines and protections available that you and your intern might not have. I haven’t had to face this with pregnant students (though that does come up every other semester or so – Thanks, Abstinence Only Education! You Don’t Work At All And Should Be Completely De-funded and Called Out For Being A Crock of Shit!) but I have had a student with some obvious and scary health problems who needed to be referred to some services so (s)he didn’t do things like stop breathing or have fainting spells and seizures in my class.
Your intern has put all of you in a terrible position. I think it is unethical to ask other people to keep secrets like this. If she wanted her pregnancy to be secret, she could have just not told anyone at work. She could have continued work, dealt with her (likely very legitimate fears) that her career would be derailed by the pregnancy by finishing out the term, and no one would be the wiser unless she started showing before the term is out, and the ethical/legal/medical issues would be moot because she never told you.
I completely respect your desire not to treat her as a vessel rather than an adult with agency and your desire not to be a concern troll, but by disclosing the pregnancy to the staff she put all of you in an ethical (and perhaps legal) pickle. Also, someone who is an intern is by definition inexperienced in the workplace (or this particular workplace) and sometimes needs to be mentored/schooled by people up the chain. I think you and the lab (your boss or her direct supervisor or some combination thereof) have a three-step approach here:
1. The first step in any workplace conflict is to talk to the other person directly and ask them to stop the troublesome behavior. If someone’s sexually harassing you, for instance, the first step isn’t to go to HR, the first step is to say “Please stop talking to me that way, I’m not interested and it makes me uncomfortable.” Because HR’s first question will be “Did you ask the person to knock it off?” and you need to be able to say that you did, to remove the harasser’s plausible deniability that it was all a joke and that (s)he had no idea that you objected to the behavior.
So talk to the intern directly: “You put me in a terrible situation when you told me about your pregnancy and asked me to keep it secret. You made something that was none of my business my business, and you have jeopardized my working relationships if this all blows up and my boss finds out that I knew and lied for you. I understand that your body and your decisions are entirely your own, and I understand your concerns about (professor) and finishing on time, but I recommend that you set up a meeting with my boss (professor’s boss) and talk about the best way to proceed. Also, you need to stop asking people to lie for you – if you want something to be secret, just keep it secret – don’t put it on us. There are serious ethical, safety, and legal issues at stake here that affect more people than just you.” You can also say “I will not lie for you and I made a mistake when I agreed to. I will not report you, but if anyone asks me – including your evil professor – I will tell them they should talk to you about that.” And you can also say “If you haven’t told my boss by x date, then I will inform her,” as your instincts are telling you to do. I found some basic generic advice on how to tell your boss you are pregnant here.
Document that you had this conversation – type it up, date it, keep it somewhere – so that if everything blows up you can say “On (date), I recommended the intern inform management of her pregnancy due to serious safety issues.” And if your boss turns to you at that point, you can say “I told her to tell you,” and it won’t be a lie.
2. Second, what are the legal/safety issues at stake? I assume there is some kind of safety manual or training or orientation that everyone gets when they come to the lab before they start playing with the dangerous stuff, and that this employee knows exactly what the risks and necessary precautions are. How has the lab dealt with pregnant employees in the past? What kind of protocol is in place for this? This probably isn’t your job to deliver, but it would be good if you knew exactly when and how the intern received this information at the start of her tenure and it would be good for the management to be able to document that they gave her this info. It might be time for the lab to go over safety protocols with all interns and even all employees to make sure that everyone’s ass is covered. Basically, you and/or the lab need to be able to say “We clearly inform all staff about the safety issues in working with these chemicals, and have x protocols in place for safety. (Intern) was trained and informed on these dates and in the following ways.” The fact that she’s a student and an intern makes this all the more hairy and I can’t comment further without knowing anything about the legal issues at stake and if that status means that the university stand in loco parentis* to their students.
3. You CAN tell your boss. This is what bosses are for. “I don’t know if you know – (Intern) has informed us that she’s pregnant but asked us not to tell anyone for fear of being fired or failed out of the course. I feel that this opens the lab up to a lot of legal and safety issues if she continues to work with (chemicals), can you sit her down for a chat and find some safe alternatives for her to carry on with her studies?“
I hope some readers with more experience and training can weigh in, that’s pretty much what I can tell you – make sure she has the information she needs to make an informed safety decision for herself (and that the lab can document that they gave it to her), make sure you’ve told her directly what you think and that you won’t lie (and document that they told her), tell your boss if you feel it’s necessary – and then distance yourself from her. You’ve done what you can, and while you are trying to respect her autonomy you also don’t have to be her conspirator or confidant in this.
*From what I understand, mostly from watching Law & Order, the question of whether a university stands ‘in place of the parents’ with students comes up in lawsuits all the time, with the parents saying “you should have prevented my child from doing x unsafe thing” and the school saying “your child is a legal adult who should have known better than to ____ (snort all the coke, become a high-priced call girl, etc.)” Is this true in the real world or just at Hudson University?