Philosophical Beliefs In The Workplace: What The Employer Should Look Out For
Posted on 15th February 2022 at 14:15
When it was decided that philosophical beliefs should gain Equality Act protection alongside religious beliefs, it was perhaps inevitable that some eye catching tribunal cases would follow. Most recently, we saw Maya Forstater’s “gender critical” beliefs – in other words, that biological sex was immutable – described in the employment tribunal in Forstater v CGD Europe as “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”, before her appeal against that decision was upheld. One observation in the course of the appeal succeeding was that such beliefs were not akin to Nazism or its equivalents.
Before then, there were belief cases involving man made global warming (Grainger v Nicholson), and ethical veganism (Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports). Both of those beliefs were deemed to qualify for protection. But what did the individual claimants do in the workplace to bring about tribunal proceedings? And what can or should an employer do to ensure that beliefs are either tolerated or kept private?
Maya Forstater engaged in social media debate about gender identity issues outside the workplace in her own time via her personal Twitter account. Offence was taken at her comments, some work colleagues complained, and it led to her visiting fellowship not being renewed, and in turn to her claim.
Mr Nicholson claimed that he had been unfairly made redundant. He claimed this was down to his “philosophical belief which affects how I live my life including my choice of home, how I travel, what I buy, what I eat and drink, what I do with my waste and my hopes and my fears. For example, I no longer travel by airplane, I have eco-renovated my home, I try to buy local produce, I have reduced my consumption of meat, I compost my food waste, I encourage others to reduce their carbon emissions and I fear very much for the future of the human race, given the failure to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale." By necessary implication, he must have made his employers aware of his belief, but the extent to which and the manner in which he did so is unknown to the legal debate.
Mr Casamitjana claimed that his dismissal, being linked to his communications with work colleagues about how the charity’s pension fund was being invested, was discriminatory because of his ethical veganism. It was noted in the proceedings that this went beyond choices of diet, extending in broad terms to a lifestyle that was moralistically orientated and opposed to all forms of exploitation of all animals and to embody genuine philosophical concern for all sentient life. The tone and content of his communications remain unknown, notably because settlement terms were agreed after the charity conceded that the belief qualified for protection and the tribunal ratified the concession after careful study.
In summary, the employers of Mr Nicholson and Mr Casamitjana made an ordinary decision that was nothing to do with the belief, and found themselves challenged by reference to it. By contrast, the think tank that engaged Ms Forstater as a consultant took note of complaints about her belief, and were influenced by the complaints in deciding not to renew her consultancy.
What can be done to avoid such claims? One immediate thought is that there ought not to be any floodgates factor. If a belief does not relate to a “weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”, it will not pass the threshold. No need to fear discussions on football teams and musicians getting out of hand.
But there may still be a case for putting a fresh anti-discrimination policy in place, or having an existing one amended. If it is made plain that everyone must abide by the Equality Act’s duties, but that employees ought not to “bring their beliefs to work” in an overt and unnecessary manner, this might strike the right balance and keep the risk of claims to a minimum.
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