General Election 2015 – Can someone be fired for their political beliefs?
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In case you hadn’t noticed, the General Election is today, and the country seems evenly divided – with no main party majority appearing in any poll. What does this mean when it comes to the workplace then, if your office is equally divided, could it cause issues for you as an employer?

This would certainly be the case for the GMB trade union, who recently appeared in the employment tribunal case Henderson vs. GMB. Why? Because Henderson had claimed direct discrimination and harassment due to his strongly held political beliefs.

Henderson vs. GMB

The initial tribunal found that Henderson had suffered unlawful direct discrimination and harassment because of his ‘left-wing democratic socialist’ beliefs – enough for him to be covered under the Equality Act of 2010. These included various incidences of unwarranted conduct by the GMB, creating an environment that was intimidating or even hostile for Henderson to work in. For example, it is alleged that they shouted at him for being ‘too left wing’ in handling the organisation of a picket line at the House of Commons, and that he was given additional time consuming work relating to complaints and requirements to produce written reports, effectively to force him to resign or to justify disciplinary action.

On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (E.A.T.) overturned this finding and said that the incidents in question did not amount to harassment as they were not sufficiently serious. They also said there was no evidence of the attitudes towards Henderson’s beliefs of the staff involved in dismissing him.

Whilst the claim for discrimination and harassment did not ultimately succeed here, it was not in dispute in the case that Henderson’s beliefs were sufficiently strongly held philosophical beliefs to come under the protection of the Equality Act, which protects people from unfair treatment because of their religion or belief.

Philosophical beliefs and equality

Any suggestion that Mr. Henderson’s philosophical belief is not covered here by the Equality Act is wrong – there is equal protection for deep set philosophical beliefs and any religious belief, as long as they are genuinely held. But political beliefs on their own are not expressly protected under the Equality Act.

If someone has a philosophical belief – such as humanism or atheism – you’ll need to confirm the following (which might be easier said than done!) to prove whether they are ‘deep set’:

  • the belief is genuinely held
  • it’s a belief and not just an opinion or view on something
  • the belief has an actual impact on their human life and behaviour
  • it is a serious, cohesive belief – as opposed to being made up on the spot to suit them
  • it’s worthy of respect in a democratic society and doesn’t conflict with anyone’s fundamental rights

The same protection is given to someone with a particular philosophical belief as to someone with a particular religion.  And the opposite is also true – you can’t be discriminated against for the lack of any particular religion or belief.

What does this mean for you in the coming days, or even weeks? Most people’s views about the General Election and lively debate about it in the office or work environment will not cause you any problems.  The difficulty comes if attitudes to an employee change for the worse because of any strongly held political and philosophical views that affect their relationships with other staff or customers.

Therefore, if you feel this may become an issue in your workplace, either because of the views of your staff, or because you need to manage very carefully any discussions about politics with customers, it is essential for you to communicate with staff and manage their expectations during the course of the coming weeks. It could be a difficult and lengthy period with parties wrangling for power, and as such it is necessary to make clear how you expect employees to conduct themselves; both with other staff and also customers

More on the Equality Act

If you aren’t clear on what the Equality Act covers, in relation to religion and belief there are essentially four separate (but connected) areas of unfair treatment you need to avoid:

  • direct discrimination – treating some staff differently to others, or others more favourably, due to their religion or belief, or that of someone they are associated with.
  • indirect discrimination – when you put a policy or practice in place which applies to all workers, but might disadvantage someone with specific beliefs. For example, a no jewellery policy for hygiene reasons, which might discriminate against members of certain religions.
  • harassment – when you create an environment that is degrading, humiliating, or even offensive for an individual of a certain religion or belief.
  • victimisation – this occurs should anyone feel unfairly treated for supporting someone who has been discriminated against or harassed for reason of their religion or beliefs.

Many people may commonly associate this with employment status, or matters around promotion, but there are other times at which potential discrimination is more likely to occur, and should be avoided e.g during recruitment, interview, training, grievances, disciplinary and even when countering any alleged bullying or harassment.

So there you have it – a quick guide to political beliefs and how they can impact upon you as an employer. It’s worth thinking about with the results of the election just over the horizon…

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