A new year, a new decade and the news that more of us than ever are taking part in Veganuary (a pledge to try a vegan diet for the month of January).
A large number of retailers have launched new vegan ranges to respond to customer demand and bakery chain Greggs recently announced that it would be rewarding employees with a special bonus after the hugely successful launch of their vegan sausage roll last year boosted sales and profits. It seems that veganism is now big business, but does its increasing popularity create any pitfalls for employers?
Tribunal case: Casamitiana v The League Against Cruel Sports
The recent employment tribunal case Casamitiana v The League Against Cruel Sports has attracted much publicity following its decision that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief which entitles vegans with that belief to protection from discrimination.
However, looking behind the headlines, the issues in the case are not as straightforward as they may first appear.
Firstly, the decision applies only to “ethical veganism” and not just those who are vegans for other reasons such as health or fitness. Also, not all ethical vegans will have the same set of beliefs as Mr Casamitjana in this particular case (which included avoiding travelling by vehicle where possible so as not to be party to the death of insects hitting the windscreen) and therefore their ethical belief may not amount to a characteristic protected by law against discrimination.
Secondly, Mr Casamitjana’s case has not yet been concluded. This was only a preliminary hearing to decide whether his ethical veganism amounted to a protected characteristic meaning that his discrimination claim can go ahead. An Employment Tribunal will still need to decide whether he was in fact dismissed from his job because of his beliefs or, as his employer contends, he was fairly dismissed for gross misconduct.
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So, what does all of this mean for employers in practice?
As with any other philosophical belief or religion, employers will need to be alive to the fact that an employee who is an ethical vegan is likely to be protected against discrimination, harassment and victimisation and that extra care is needed. But let’s not forget that actually finding out whether an employee is an ethical vegan or just someone who prefers the health benefits of a plant-based diet won’t always be straight forward to achieve, and for a claim to be successful they would need to demonstrate that their beliefs affected their everyday activities.
In practical terms, it means, you will need to make sure that there is a vegan option on the menu at the next team dinner and it is important you make staff aware that what one person sees as ‘banter’ can be viewed by another as hurtful or offensive.
If someone does complain that their beliefs are not being considered, whether or not they meet the tests legally of being “strongly held”, we would err on the side of caution and recommend looking at it seriously. You might consider reasonable adjustments which could be as simple as holding lunches at different venues, or you could go further and consider allowing someone to work from home as an alternative to driving to work. This is quite a unique case so, in reality, it is unlikely to affect many employers, and you won’t have to ban animal products from all areas of your business, as most vegans will accept that they can’t make everyone else change their lifestyles but will usually just be seeking to have their beliefs respected.
Overall it is always preferable to create a workplace culture of understanding and respect. All employees are different and should feel welcome at work regardless of their beliefs or what they choose to eat.
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