We live in what seems like an increasingly polarised world where simply disagreeing with someone else’s opinion can lead to being ‘cancelled’. There are many issues where people have deeply and passionately held beliefs that they are very vocal about, but what happens when these clash in the workplace?
How do you manage staff who have strongly held but opposing views?
For example, should you act as ‘referee’ or adopt a ‘hands off’ approach? This is a sensitive and complex area for businesses but the legal risks of getting it wrong are significant.
Social media has also blurred the lines between the public and the private and navigating this can be a tricky balancing act for the HR team.
It’s important to remember that the law protects those who hold certain beliefs against discrimination and harassment. Employers can be liable for this, and compensation is potentially unlimited.
Views which have been found to be legally protected include: ethical veganism, climate change, gender-critical beliefs and belief in the sanctity of life.
Rustam Roy, Consultant Legal Counsel at LegalEdge provides some practical steps to consider:
- Some businesses have found that taking a stand on political or social issues can backfire. There’s a balance to be found between supporting certain causes and being too closely associated with issues which might significantly polarise opinion and antagonise people. Plus, employers have a duty to staff to step back and not take sides (whether by act or omission) on whether a particular staff member’s beliefs, political opinions, etc are right or wrong.
- While it may be tempting to say that it’s easier if private beliefs are not aired in the workplace at all, be mindful of individuals’ right to freedom of expression.
- There may however be some legitimate restrictions on staff which you can justify such as, protecting the business and its reputation or protecting the rights of others.
- Aim for an inclusive workplace where difference is valued and respected and there is space for everyone to be themselves.
- Try to build a workplace culture that is respectful and tolerant and make it clear that demonising those who hold different views or beliefs is never acceptable.
- Competing views and rights need to be accommodated. One opinion does not trump another – each is likely to be equally protected by law.
- Don’t ignore formal grievances and deal with these without delay, even if it’s tempting to put it in the ‘too difficult’ pile.
- It is unlikely to be appropriate to discipline someone simply for expressing their view in the workplace.
- However, there may be occasions where someone expresses their view in a way which is unacceptable. If so, be very clear that it is this is the subject of the disciplinary action, not the view itself.
- If you are asked to deal with complaints about opinions expressed at work try and remain absolutely neutral, don’t take sides, whatever your personal view.
- Remember that there is no legal right not to be offended.
- There is a risk that the way a view is expressed amounts to harassment, but this is not always the case. It is not easy to know where the line is drawn in any particular scenario so take advice on this without delay.
- Workplace policies should be designed so they don’t require a value judgment to be made on an employee’s view or opinion.
Forstater v CGD Europe & Others | A UK employment and discrimination case where gender-critical beliefs gained the same legal protections as religious, environmental and ethical veganism philosophical beliefs. Meaning anyone sharing these protected characteristic are protected from unlawful discrimination and harassment.
Fahmy v Arts Council England | In a unanimous judgment of the Leeds Employment Tribunal Ms Fahmy proved that she was subjected to harassment for her gender critical beliefs.
How can we help?
We can advise on your legal obligations in the event of staff disputes around religion and belief in the workplace.
We can also provide training to help businesses promote inclusive and tolerant workplaces and review and draft policies to help manage disputes, deal with harassment complaints and set out acceptable use of social media. Get in touch if you want a chat on firstname.lastname@example.org