Human Resources News & Insights

What were they thinking? Single mom fired for caring for sick child

We occasionally report workplace behavior that’s so odd that it sounds made up. Except it’s not. Today’s story: A company fires a single mother after she stays home a day to care for a child with a contagious disease. And it’s even worse than it sounds.

The story is compiled from court documents and reports in the Chicago Tribune and Inc. magazine.

Now, don’t get us wrong. We fully believe that employers have the right to fire under-performing employees who don’t follow the rules. After all, business is business.

But the case of Dena Lockwood, a 39-year-old single mother of two, seems a bit outside the boundaries of a run-of-the-mill termination (and the Chicago Human Rights Commission thought so, too, as we’ll see).

Lockwood applied for a sales position in 2004 with Professional Neurological Services, a Chicago-area company that sells medical tests to doctors. Lockwood said when she was interviewed for the job, she mentioned having children. Mistake #1: The interviewer asked if being a parent would interfere with getting the job done. Lockwood said no.

Still, the company remained skeptical — as reflected in their compensation offer to the woman. Mistake #2: While others in her position routinely started as $45,000 a year plus 10% commission, the company offered Lockwood just $25,000 a year base pay. After some back-and-forth, the woman and the employer agreed she would be paid the usual $45K, but that her commission rate would be only 5% until she hit $300,000 in sales. Then the commission rate would jump to the standard 10%.

Lockwood also tried to negotiate the standard vacation policy, which gave employees five days off a year. Her hiring manager responded that the company was pretty loose about the policy, so Lockwood shouldn’t worry about it.

Turns out, Lockwood was pretty good at the job, because she was getting close to the magic $300K sales figure needed to double her commission rate from 5% to 10%. That’s around the same time, in 2006, that her 4-year-old daughter came down with a highly contagious case of conjunctivitis — pinkeye.

Lockwood called in, explained the situation and saying she’d have to miss a day to stay with her daughter. Mistake #3: She got a call back summarily firing her because she “just wasn’t working out.”

The Chicago Human Right Commission found that the employer had discriminated against Lockwood because of her family situation. Among the bits of evidence that swayed the commission was a report that a colleague of Lockwood’s, in a similar situation, had been given the day off to deal with a home repair.  (We’re editorializing here, but that part of the story seems to indicate that the employer placed plumbing problems ahead of health problems.)

The commission ordered the employer to pay Lockwood $300,000. The employer is appealing the decision.

All together now: What were they thinking?

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  • Nice company. (that was sarcastic). People have lives. Don’t you think the company would have had a more dedicated employee if they would have just let her have the time off to care for her child. If she’s in sales, why couldn’t she make calls from home while cared for your daughter.

  • Tina

    something just sounds “off” here. I would be amazed if there isn’t more to the story.

  • E Martinez

    I have to agree there is likely more to the story, but the disparate treatment is the key. Also, I think the single mom aspect is irrelevant, and fosters the notion that people should wear this status as a badge of honor entitling them to sympathy and more favorable treatment.

  • My skin crawled at the initial interview question…no matter the rest of the story this is flat out a discrimantion issue based on gender and family responsibility. This woman should have been offered the same pay structure as that of a male counterpart or even a single counterpart. Her family life nor her gender should have determined such a difference in what they were willing to pay her. Just from that point the story STINKS!!! The company recruiter and hiring manager should have been fired for sheer stupidity and allowing the company to be held liable for a situation that WAS completely avoidable. They opened the door for this type of lawsuit, and in the end the manager didn’t even know how to handle it professionaly. STUPID STUPID STUPID…

  • Sarah Charton

    Ms. Lockwood appears to have been extremely candid at her interview, and she was honest about why she needed the time off, which is more than you can say for many others. Seriously, you have to wonder: what exactly is the logic of giving this ee LESS time off than others who are similary situated? I don’t doubt there’s a wealth of information we’re not getting here (maybe the ee with the plumbing problem had been with the co. for umpty years and has a jillion weeks of PTO), but why handicap Ms. Lockwood right out of the gate? What purpose did that serve?

  • Does this company even have an HR department? Wow!

  • Kelly

    I’m curious to know what her attendance was outside of this instance and if other sales agents were well over the $300k mark.

  • Trudie Patchutie

    Either the company didn’t want to pay the full commission once the goal was attained, or she was actually “not working out” personality-wise. Maybe the supervisor felt threatened that she was better than they were?

  • Robert

    Do we have the whole story? At fist glance, the case sounds obviously ridiculous in terms of their decision for having one day off. However, we don’t know if the company was scaling back and attempting to negotiate with all new sales reps – where she might have been one of the first; we don’t know if there were attendance problems, or other performance deficiencies – is 300K the standard or is it just a goal?

    Discrimination? I’m not convinced based on the info provided here… there needs to be the absence of other information as a matter of fact that it does not exist. The absence of poor attendance, exhaustion of FMLA, and no other performance issues (what is the production goal?). The company’s policies and record of enforcement should be examined too.

    Though it seems that the company should be more supportive of their employees – judgement should remain at bay until all the facts are revealed. Having said all this, it’s still unfortunate to think that a company would fire someone staying at home for what is obviously a temporary health concern over a child – even if the employee exhausted all of her avialable time off – it’s the wrong time to address retention concerns.

  • Emily

    My question: Where was HR in all of this? I’m sure no HR person would have made these mistakes. It sounds more like the company’s management was just, as my grandma would put it, “flying by the seat of their pants.”

    In my company, department managers do their own interviewing (because they know their departments and know more technical questions to ask candidates) but I’m required to sit in on the interview to make sure it stays on the right track (WHY did the interviewer ask about her kids? You can’t not hire her because she has a family, and you can’t offer her less money because of it). There have been a few times with newer managers where they have asked questions they shouldn’t, and I pipe in by telling the candidate they don’t have to answer, and the interview continues.

    Regardless, it sounds like the HR department for the company in this story is little more than a technicality.

  • Patrick

    There seems to be a prevalent behavior of bullying in this company. It appears that they are letting the perceptions of the employee’s personality conflict with their proven performance. Even if you deserve it and even if it is common knowledge that others have been awarded better compensations I have seen companies withhold certain perks as a means to control and hold back those employees that speak their mind. Whenever you have to ask for more than what was provided then you will be made an example to intimidate the others. Get hired with the blessing of the “click” and all is golden, but when you come in as the most qualified and it prevents the “buddy system” from working then look out because someone is just not fitting in, (Even if you almost have $300 grand in sales) The inconsistency in the companies absence policy, the employees performance and release phone call (very cowardly) is what leads me to make these statements.

  • Mena

    Emily, well said- i was thinking the same thing. I am curious to know if she has any documentation of items that put her in the “not working out” status. Has she ever been counseled? repremanded? hmmmmm

    If her sales were good and she was following protocol of her expectation…. something is WAY OFF here!

  • the minute they changed her salary from 25K to 45K (the normal salary) alarm bells started going off in my head. Hope she gets a nice settlement and perhaps will be
    wiser in the future.

  • KR

    Although it’s only implied that her previous compensation was under $25,000, does anyone other than myself think it’s discriminatory to base job offers on previous levels of compensation? I believe that an offer should be based on the market value for the position. For companies to ask what someone’s previous compensation was propogates systemic discrimination against women and minorities. Does anyone else agree?

  • SM

    This sounds like a situation where someone is doing HR by default and is not an actual HR person. There is no HR in this process whatsoever. Imagine what else is going on at this company! I don’t know anything about this company but small private companies still get away with a lot as they fly under the radar.

  • Robert

    These types of terminations happen all the time. The worse case I came across was when a supervisor tried to terminate an employee for leaving his desk without the supervisor’s permission to go to his daughter’s school after a mass shooting to see if she was ok. The employee actually did try to contact the supervisor who could not be found and did let his coworkers know where he was going. Only after I convinced the supervisor that such action would lead to adverse publicity against him did he reluctantly agree to drop the discharge action. However, this supervisor ended-up costing the company alot of money in lost court cases on other terminations.

  • It is due to having experiences like these that I left corporate America 20 years ago to launch my own business, which includes publishing a national magazine entitled ‘Work Life Matters.’

  • eileen

    I think the company was using her family position as a way to cheap out. Yes, you’re quaified enough that we’ll hire you, but no we can’t pay you what we pay everyone else. Well, Ok, we’ll pay you the same salary, but you have to prove yourself before you get the standard commission. Ooooh, you’re getting close to crossing the hurdle we put in your way and we’re going to have to actually pay you what you should have been making all along. Gosh — you’re fired. Seems like a strange way to provide incentives for a sales position. I’ve seen other companies play these kinds of games and I don’t know what they think they get out of it, other than a nasty reputation.

  • SS


    It doesn’t appear that the offer of $25,000 a year was based off of her previous earnings.

    However, I do agree that asking for previous compensation amounts is biased. After moving to another state for personal reasons, I needed a job. The only one I could find on short notice paid about $5 an hour less than my previous job. I was not in a position to be picky about jobs and I took it. When I went on job interviews after that (looking for a job that better suited my abilities and interests) I had to keep explaining why my pay had changed and why I took a job beneath my education and experience levels. I would have appreciated it if someone gave me some credit for being a responsible adult and working to pay bills instead of choosing to go into a ton of debt while holding out for that “dream job.”

    I have an excellent job now, but the HR manager had to argue my case with some of the other people who were in on the decision making process, just to get me hired.

  • Stacy

    Even if she wasn’t a single mother, most of the time when a child is sick, the mother is called to pick them up or is the one that stays home, not the father. Something is definitely “rotten in Denmark” with this situation. I hope she gets $300,000 and I hope that company continues to waste a lot of money on legal fees trying to fight obvious discrimination and harrassment.

  • Flee

    I think the company likely tries to lowball all applicants. A good salesperson will push for more. From $25k to $45k is a substantial difference as a starting point and seems out of line with normal negotiations. They should be forced to pay a sizeable settlement to punish them for such a blatant act. Without more facts we can’t assume there is any more to the story and that being the case the company acted poorly.

  • AMC

    I do not think that it’s an issue of “playing” the single parent card. Maybe some do use that as an excuse but if you reveiw the 3 mistakes it’s not rocket science. It’s straight up common sense an employer does not ask personal questions that may get them into trouble. Send your sups and HR back to training class to learn what to say and not to say during an interview. Pretty simple and yet stuff like this happens daily. It’s b/c ppl don’t care. They get lazy on their jobs and don’t care.

  • Mary

    Sounds like a performance problem to me… The performance of the interviewer, the supervisor and HR. Hopefully they are being reprimanded for their poor handling of this situation and their lack of performance. The problem is that the rest of the story doesn’t matter. When the people responsible for hiring and managing employees do these things then that is all that matters. Hopefully, this employee will get her settlement and go work for a company that knows what to do with people who choose to work there.

  • Mo

    Although I kind of agree with companies like this and a lot of other companies that seriously frown upon single moms simply because of all their need for this “time” to take off, constantly having to rearrange her schedule to take care of her child, I can totally see why a lot of companies are reluctant to hire single mothers and are like well we will hire then a male or an older lady that doesn’t have to constantly have time off to take care of her kids. Companies are companies and they can’t constantly bend just for you to always need time off. But in this situation I agree that the company should have to pay her since the company let another employee off for some maintenance work and then she get’s terminated for taking the day off with her kid being sick. It’s also complete BS the employer is appealing the decision. The employer is just stalling and holding out as long as they can. In situations like this attorneys need to enforce the appellate process to make it go fast so she gets paid instead of this company holding out for a long time.

  • jon

    Uhhh….how can all these people make comments that there must be more to the story and nearly taking a stance that the the company is the victim. Granted, if I was to make a decision based on the fact presented, I would want further evidence (perhaps performance reviews, time at the company, etc). But the fact that the workforce commission ordered in her favor gives a high probability that the story is complete as is! Have any of you ever had a workforce claim? It’s not like you just go crying to them and they give you a sucker to make you feel better. They look at employee attendance, performance, etc…yes, they do this for a living and actually INVESTIGATE THE CLAIM to see if it is valid. I had one employer withhold my final paycheck, in blatant violation of the very clearly worded law, and it still took them nearly 5 months to investigate and make a decision. Furthermore, the company didn’t let her go the day before, or the day after. She called in, and they immediately called her back and fired her. Come on people….we don’t have all the facts, but give what is presented and what we can infer, it is pretty obvious the company is a bunch of jerks!

  • Nanlisa

    Employers need to realize that we are not living in the days of June Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriet anymore. The days of the stay-at-home mom are long gone. Half the marriages in this country today end up in divorce. More children today are being raised in a single-parent household; headed up mainly by women. Even in a two-parent household, both parents have to work in order to survive. It takes two incomes to provide the same lifestyle that one did forty or fifty years ago. Women should not be forced to choose between a job and taking care of their kids.

  • This is a pretty clear cut Title VII violation.

    Wow. Discriminatory interview questions, disparate pay, termination without cause, and adverse policy impact all in one neat little package. Yet another example of why hiring managers need compliance training.

    My question: if a sales rep is hitting her numbers and doesn’t have a history of attendance or performance issues, what motivation was there for her to be terminated?

  • Savannah

    I have almost the same prob I let my employer know before hand and I still got the job and I got a raise. I got fired cause my son got strep and there was no one to cover. I’m kinda damned if i do and damned if I don’t there were red flags about my job, they didn’t like the gal who was going on maternity leave, they didn’t like one of the guys who trained me, they didn’t let me work the shift I hired for they gave it to the guy they should of asked first, but I needed the job, you see I am on state assistance and my daycare requires 30 hours to maintain a position, so will say I deserve what I got cause I ignored the warning sings, yet others will say that I did the right thing in the economy right now one can not be choosy when you need to pay bills. I mean I do have a job but its slows down in the winter time. I hate Nebraska law this way, this is a common practice here. It effects my work history and I have to start all over again the money that I saved to afford a on call sitter is depleted to pay bills until I find another job to probably meet the same fate. Yet I will do it again and again because I know I have to.