Understanding philosophical beliefs in the workplace

Wednesday July 7, 2021

Belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This means that a person cannot be discriminated against because of, or lack of, their belief.

In guidance, belief gets grouped together with religion. However, unlike religion, belief is not as clearly defined. This understandably can be a source of confusion for some people.

Phrases like “I don’t believe it” are common in everyday situations, but when do they go from being an expression of amazement to a genuine statement of fact?

This comes down to philosophical belief. In short, a philosophical belief will be a genuinely held belief concerning human life and behaviour and be worthy of respect in a democratic society.

This is a complex area of employment law, and employers must take care when handling situations concerning belief to avoid claims of discrimination.

Looking at some recent Employment Tribunals, we can see examples of how belief has been managed in the workplace. We can distinguish between situations that were found to be discriminatory and those which weren’t.

The Equality Act lays the foundation for how such cases are decided and is crucial for understanding compliance.

The Equality Act 2010

Since 2010, the Equality Act has provided the legal framework for protecting individuals from unfair treatment.

To fully protect your employees and business, it is critical to understand the Equality Act as well as ensuring that your workplace culture is actively inclusive.

Under the Equality Act, there are nine characteristics that are legally protected from discrimination. These are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and Civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Managing people problems concerning any of these can be risky if the correct procedures are not followed. Especially when more than one protected characteristic is concerned.

Employers should read The Equality Act 2010 in full and seek professional HR advice when applying it to their business.

Cultivating a community of mutual respect in the workplace, through policies and behaviours, not only reduces risk of discrimination, but can improve both well-being and productivity.

Examples of philosophical beliefs at work

Ethical veganism

In January last year, Jordi Casamitjana won an unfair dismissal claim against his employer, the League Against Cruel Sports. They had dismissed him on the grounds of gross misconduct. Mr Casamitjana had cited his ethical veganism as the reason for his actions.

Judge Robin Postle ruled that the claimant’s ethical veganism was a philosophical belief and therefore protected under the Equality Act from discrimination.

For comparison, just three months prior to this ruling, a similar case took place concerning vegetarianism, which was found not to be a philosophical belief.

Gender critical beliefs

Last month Maya Forstater won an Employment Appeal Tribunal against her employer the Centre for Global Development (CGD). They did not renew her contract due to her expressed gender critical beliefs that sex is immutable.

The ruling from Judge Choudhury stated that the claimant’s belief was widely shared and did not seek to destroy the rights of trans persons. Employers must still seek to provide a safe environment for trans employees and investigate cases of purposeful misgendering.

This case looked at belief alongside freedom of expression, and the ruling suggests that an opinion does not always result in the harassment or discrimination of others.

Managing beliefs in the workplace

These examples show how easily philosophical belief can be misunderstood in the workplace, and how jumping to conclusions can escalate to a tribunal.

Conversations and investigations should take place with an employee to fully understand a situation concerning belief. When it comes to deciding if and what action to take, or making sense of the law, don’t forget that we’re here to help.

Preventing People Problems

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