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What Is A Philosophical Belief In The Workplace?

The recent employment tribunal brought by vegan Jordi Casamitjana highlights the term ‘philosophical beliefs’.

For a belief to be protected under the Equality Act 2010, it must meet a series of tests which are:

  • The belief is 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, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Humanism, pacifism and atheism are all examples of widespread philosophical beliefs that are frequently encountered in the workplace and as such, it is the employer’s duty to ensure employees are not discriminated against because of their religion or belief. Employment tribunals have also found that beliefs on anti-fox hunting, climate change and a belief in democratic socialism intrinsic in the values of the Labour party are all capable of being protected as philosophical beliefs. The courts have now decided that veganism should be included too.

Employers should also take note of a case by Ms Gray, who was dismissed by the luxury handbag company Mulberry. She argued that she had been discriminated by her philosophical belief in the sanctity of copyright law. She lost the case as the tribunal did not accept that Ms Gray held that belief as any ‘sort of philosophical touchstone of her life’. However, and perhaps more significantly, it did find:

  • That Ms Gray’s belief in the sanctity of copyright law was a belief rather than an opinion based on the present state of information;
  • It accepted that the belief was genuinely held in that Ms Gray honestly believed it;
  • The Tribunal concluded that copyright law was a sufficiently ‘weighty’ and substantial aspect of human life;
  • It accepted that the belief was worthy of respect in a democratic society.

So, while Ms Gray’s belief in the sanctity of copyright law satisfied part of the test for whether a belief was a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, the Employment Tribunal did not consider that she held the belief with ‘sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’. Similarly, Mr Casamijana’s case went far beyond his dietary beliefs and even touches on his reticence to take a bus because of a potential danger to animals.

This case reinforces the point that how genuine someone’s belief is and how much of an impact it has on aspects of the life they lead is important in determining whether a belief is capable of protection. However, both the Casamitjana and Gray’s cases do not mean if someone holds a philosophical belief, they can voice it with impunity – a protected belief may be expressed unacceptable, for example, by promoting those beliefs at work, or by conflicting with other rights. Further, the holding of certain beliefs may be incompatible with certain roles.

What these developments do highlight is that employers need to pause and consider the potential legal consequences before taking action against a person on certain grounds because it may constitute discrimination on the grounds of belief, contrary to the Equality Act 2010. Furthermore, employers should:

  • Adopt and enforce a zero-tolerance approach to offensive language or conduct;
  • Have up-to-date and consistently applied policies relating to anti-harassment, bullying and discrimination as well as social media policies which are communicated to employees regularly;
  • Consider guidance on the extent to which employees are entitled to express their views and what happens when protected beliefs conflict with the protected characteristic of another employee or if it is key to the business to remain politically and philosophically neutral;
  • Ensure effective disciplinary action for employees who breach rules in place on particular discussions or anti-discrimination; and
  • Provide specific training or guidance for employees in management or decision-making capacities and ensuring that key decisions relating to employees are appropriately documented by reference to objective business reasons.

Contact Coppice HR on 07814 008478 or using paul@coppicehr.com to discuss this and other HR matters. Remember that ‘You Do The Business, We Do The HR’.

Inspired by:  Boltburdon – Philosophical Beliefs and Taylor Wessling – Philosophical Beliefs In The Workplace