When Do Beliefs Attract Legal Protection At Work?
An employer is likely to find a wide variety of beliefs held by its employees. We're all aware that some people hold (and perhaps we share) firm beliefs as regards climate change, and there is certainly a growing trend towards a vegan lifestyle and beliefs. Others may hold beliefs in spiritualism, life after death, and the ability of mediums to contact the dead; a belief that poppies should be worn in early November; a belief that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were "false flag" operations; a belief that lying is always wrong; a belief in the "higher purpose" of public service broadcasting; and beliefs about anti-fox hunting (these are all examples of beliefs that have been considered by the Employment Tribunals).
So when do beliefs attract legal protection at work?
Under the Equality Act, it is unlawful to discriminate, harass, or victimise workers or job applicants on the grounds of their religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief. "Religion or belief" is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (like age, sex, sexual orientation, race, and disability, for example). "Religion" means any religion, and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion. "Belief" means any religious or philosophical belief, and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.
Employers may feel fairly confident in identifying a religious belief, but it is clear from case law that a philosophical belief is much more difficult to identify, and this makes it a particularly tricky area for employers. The Equality and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) guide to religion or belief states "an employer should only question a belief in the most exceptional circumstances where, for example, it is very obscure, appears to be objectively unreasonable, or the sincerity of the belief of an employee is genuinely in doubt". Employers should therefore consider very carefully how to respond to employees' beliefs.
In 2009, an Employment Appeal Tribunal decision defined the criteria of a philosophical belief. 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 be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity, and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others Discrimination against...
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