Balancing Act: How to manage conflicting beliefs in the workplace

Balancing Act: How to manage conflicting beliefs in the workplace

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Author: Alex Newborough

Managing conflicting beliefs, in particular religious beliefs, is an increasingly tricky area for employers. As we discuss, Employment Tribunals regularly seek to draw the line between protecting the right to belief and other often competing rights.

In the news

The issue of conflicting beliefs has very much been in the headlines recently, with household names like Pizza Express, Tesco and Sainsbury's admitting that they use halal meat without clearly flagging this to customers. This has caused controversy amongst those who believe halal meat is a cruel practice and do not want to support it and those who require halal meat for religious reasons. Such clashes between beliefs is also common in the workplace, leaving employers in the difficult situation of trying to keep all employees happy.

What the law says

The European Convention on Human Rights recognises the fundamental right to religious belief, and in the UK this is reflected by the Equality Act 2010 which protects both religious and philosophical beliefs.

Recent cases have however highlighted the difference between the right to religious freedom which is absolute and the right to manifest religion which is qualified. Although an employee may never be treated differently because of their belief, this does not leave employers powerless to regard certain manifestations of religious belief to be misconduct.

In the recent case of Grace v Places for Children, the Claimant claimed religious discrimination following dismissal for several incidents including holding an unauthorised religious training session and causing a pregnant colleague to believe she was going to suffer a miscarriage. The Claimant argued that her dismissal was therefore a discriminatory act. She also argued that she was discriminated against by being told by a manager that it was unsuitable to have discussions about God in the workplace.

The Tribunal found that these words were not said verbatim by the Respondent, but they did indicate the Claimant's manager's approach to her faith. In spite of this, the Tribunal found that the Claimant was not discriminated against. She was not treated as she was because of her religion but rather because of the way in which it was manifested; she had upset other members of staff and her actions were considered to be inappropriate.

This decision was based on the precedent set in Chandlo v Liverpool CC in which the Claimant was dismissed from his position as a social worker for foisting his religious beliefs on service users. Here the Claimant was also not discriminated against because the inappropriate promotion of a religious belief was found to be a justifiable and non-discriminatory reason to dismiss.

These cases can be contrasted with Eweida v British Airways plc in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that restricting the Claimant from wearing a cross was a disproportionate means of protecting British Airways' desire to project a certain corporate image. Although this desire was held to be a legitimate aim, British Airways placed too much weight on it. This was partly because there was no evidence that wearing other previously authorised items of religious clothing (such as the turban) had any negative impact on the company's image.

These cases highlight the difficulties faced by employers who have to balance the protection of different religious and cultural practices with other rights such as freedom of speech or operational requirements. However they also demonstrate that a common sense approach is being taken by Tribunals who understand that religious belief should not be used by employees to justify misconduct.

Practical considerations for employers

  • Remember that philosophical beliefs, such as environmental beliefs, are provided with the same protection as religious beliefs as long as they are cogent and serious and do not compete with the fundamental rights of others;
  • Clear policies should be used to protect colleagues against discrimination, as well as allowing employers to curb manifestations of religious behaviour which are inappropriate at work;
  • Employers are extremely limited in their ability to defend against direct discrimination. However, employers can justify indirect discrimination when it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim which can include protecting the beliefs of others.

About the author

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Alexandra Newborough

Solicitor

03700 86 8434

Alex is an employment law specialist, providing advice on both contentious and non-contentious employment issues to a diverse range of public and private sector clients. Alex's experience includes restrictive covenants & confidentiality, advising on and drafting employment contracts & handbooks, advising clients on Tribunal matters and business immigration.

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