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Office parties were never like this in the good old days

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Whilst employees are protected in the workplace from discrimination on grounds of their particular religion or belief, a number of recent cases in the Employment Tribunal have highlighted that employers may still be justified in disciplining or even dismissing employees who behave in an unacceptable manner in the way they promote that religion or belief.

Man blowing up a balloon at an office partyProtection against this particular strand of discrimination first saw the light of day in 2003 when the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 came in to force. The law provides that employees who are harassed at work or suffer unfair treatment because of their beliefs may bring claims in the Employment Tribunal. Compensation for successful claims can be substantial because there is no cap on the usual award for compensation for unfair dismissal and in addition, successful Claimants are also entitled to compensation for injury to feelings. In line with other types of discrimination (for example, sex, race, age, disability) employers will be liable for acts carried out by their employees unless they can demonstrate that sufficient steps have been taken to promote equality and prevent employees from behaving in a manner which is offensive to others having the particular ‘protected characteristic’.

The law on discrimination including religious belief has now been consolidated by the Equality Act which came into force on 1 October but the fundamental principles remain unchanged

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently upheld a Tribunal’s decision that an employee dismissed by the police was not discriminated against on grounds of his belief in spiritualism and the ability of mediums to contact the dead, but because of the way he had manifested those beliefs at work. Mr Power who was employed by Greater Manchester Police Authority as a Trainer had his employment terminated after less than 3 weeks. He brought a claim alleging that he had been dismissed because of his religious beliefs. He claimed to be a follower of the Spiritualist Church and to have a belief in spiritualism, life after death and that the dead can be contacted through mediums or psychics.

He had distributed posters and CDs at work and his employers decided that his behaviour and the way he had expressed his beliefs was unacceptable and that he was unsuitable for training young police officers.

In another case, Ladele –v- London Borough of Islington, the Court of Appeal no less, rejected a marriage registrar’s discrimination claim where her dismissal was not because of her religious belief with regard to civil partnerships, but because of her refusal to carry out her civil partnership duties. Thus it was the way she manifested that belief.

In Amachree v Wandsworth Borough Council, the London Employment Tribunal has recently ruled that an employee who told a terminally ill customer/service user that she should have faith in God, then, following her complaint and his suspension, released a press statement, was not unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. The Tribunal ruled that he had made comments to a customer/service user which were offensive and inappropriate and had later breached confidentiality by releasing personal information to the media.

In an earlier case, again dealt with by the London Employment Tribunal, an employee of a different London Borough suffered the same fate when her claim for unfair dismissal and discrimination also failed. In that case, the employee, who was a committed Christian had sent an email – using her work account- to the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement which was described as ‘highly offensive’ and ‘homophobic’. The Tribunal found that it was not her religious views themselves but the manner in which she expressed them which had lead to her dismissal.

In any case of this type, we would stress that employers need to tread very carefully and conduct a full investigation before taking any disciplinary action. In particular, employees who feel that their ability to manifest their religion or belief is compromised by their employer's working practices might be successful in claiming indirect discrimination. For example, many employees want or feel obliged to wear certain items, such as turbans, hijabs or bangles for religious reasons. If an employer’s dress code prevents them from doing so, this might be indirect discrimination unless the employer’s actions can be objectively justified on other grounds.

Finally, as the legislation in this area has been held to cover philosophical beliefs which may not be religious but which nevertheless command respect and are well established (such as a recent case concerning a firmly held belief on climate change) employers need to be aware of the unusually wide ambit of this particular protection as it could for example include vegetarianism/veganism and other similar lifestyle choices . They should also not forget that as with any discrimination claim, employees do not need to have qualifying service and indeed job applicants are also fully covered and entitled to claims if they are rejected for their beliefs. As we approach Christmas, it is not difficult to conceive of situations in which devoted Christians may seek to foist their views on others who may not agree or who hold other conflicting beliefs, leading to heated exchanges over the mince pies at those office parties!

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