Work advice: Is her career being mommy-tracked?

Updated 8/12/2012 7:48 AM

Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: I have been an attorney in county government for the past five years, handling one type of litigation. I had practiced in that specialty for eight years, was the top attorney in that area and always received high praise for my work product and ethic. I went on maternity leave in January, returned mid-March and was "reassigned" to another department practicing an area of law in which I have zero experience. They hired another woman to take over my previous work. They have not cut my pay or benefits, but moved me from my office to a cubicle. They are also hiring another attorney to "help me," although I have had no work for nearly eight weeks despite repeated requests. I've contacted outside colleagues, and there is no work at my level in the private sector that would pay what I'm worth. I'm trying to learn this new area of law on my own and scraping up projects while staying off the radar, but I can't help feeling that the ax is coming.

A: To my nose, this smells ripe for a lawsuit. But let's see what a high-powered employment attorney thinks.

If she were in your position, "I'd go home and have a good cry," says Tracy Gonos, of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C. "That's like starting out of law school again."

But while Gonos agrees your situation is "dismaying," she's not yet convinced it's something you can sue over. The post-maternity-leave timing of your reassignment and move to a cubicle look suspicious, although your pay and benefits are unchanged. But it's plausible that management hired your replacement to cover for you, and then decided to keep her on while shifting you to another position that needs a strong performer. Federal law guarantees you a job comparable to -- not necessarily the same as -- the one you had before. If you are being ousted, this setup makes it hard to prove.

Gonos recommends gathering information that will either set your mind at ease or confirm your suspicions. Start by asking management -- via email, so you have a written record -- why you were reassigned despite your excellent performance. Find out specifically what your new responsibilities are and your potential for growth in this position.

The next step is to request (again, via email) employer-sponsored legal training to help you get up to speed in this new area of law. If it's granted, take full advantage. If it's denied, that could suggest you're being set up to fail.

Management's support or stonewalling will tell you whether you should study up, or lawyer up. Either way, taking charge of your situation beats waiting helplessly for an invisible ax to fall.

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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