The current turbulent political environment means it is inevitable that workplace chatter will turn to politics. Yet when does healthy workplace debate turn into a potential discrimination claim?
It makes good business sense for organisations to remain apolitical, but it is unrealistic to expect employees to do the same. Employers therefore have a duty to foster a workplace free of bullying, harassment or discrimination.
A starting point for employers worried about political debate in the workplace is to remind employees of their personal responsibilities to each other. More and more employers now have dignity or respect at work policies, which outline what is and isn’t accepted workplace behaviour.
Unfortunately for employers it is an area where the law is being tested. More and more frequently we are seeing cases that question whether an employees’ views constitute a ‘philosophical belief’ under the Equality Act 2010.
In the case of Grainger plc and others v Nicholson EAT/0219/09 the Employment Appeal Tribunal clarified the test as to what amounts to a ‘philosophical belief’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Nicholson was made redundant and subsequently brought claims for unfair dismissal as well as religion and belief discrimination against his former employer, Grainger plc. He argued that his belief about climate change was not simply an opinion, but constituted a philosophical belief under the relevant legislation (then the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, now the Equality Act 2010.
Grainger argued that it had not properly applied the law, but the company’s appeal was dismissed. The case went on to clarify the legal test for a philosophical belief, namely for something to be considered a philosophical belief under the Equality Act, it must:
- be genuinely held
- be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Employers must take a risk-averse approach to this emerging area of law. Employers should always show that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent such a claim under the Equality Act. One such way may be to hold compulsory training for staff on the standard of behaviour expected and have them sign a declaration that they have understood what is required of them.