Legal protections from discrimination based on protected beliefs are increasingly making headlines. This can be a difficult area for employers as conflicts of beliefs may arise in the workplace and controversial or offensive views may be protected.

What does the law say?

The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of “religious or philosophical belief”.

Historically, the focus has been on how religious beliefs are protected in the workplace, but recently there has been a steady increase in philosophical belief cases.

To be protected, a belief must:

  • Be genuinely held
  • Be more than just an opinion or point of view based on the present state of information available
  • Relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • Contain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity, nor conflict with the fundamental rights of others

What beliefs have (or haven’t) been protected?

There is no exhaustive list of what beliefs are protected as each case will always be decided on its own facts. A wide range of beliefs have been protected by tribunals, including some surprising examples: a belief in climate change, a belief in the sanctity of life leading to being passionately anti-fox hunting, belief in Scottish independence, belief in national independence (in the context of EU membership), a belief that it is wrong to lie under any circumstances, various permutations of gender critical beliefs and ethical veganism.

Recently, tribunals have also confirmed that even beliefs that are potentially offensive, shocking, or disturbing could be protected. Only very extreme beliefs (such as “pursuing totalitarianism” or “advocating Nazism”) would not be protected because they are not considered worthy of respect in a democratic society.

So what beliefs won’t be protected? Ethical veganism that included believing there was an obligation to do unlawful acts to prevent animal cruelty. This failed the last stage of the legal test – a belief that required breaking the law was not worthy of respect in a democratic society.

Vegetarianism was found to be a mere “lifestyle choice” that lacked the necessary cogency for protection because there could be many different reasons for being vegetarian. That does not necessarily mean that vegetarianism couldn’t be protected in other cases with different facts.

Fear of catching Covid-19 was not a true belief, just an opinion. It was only about an aspect of human life and behaviour at a specific point in time, rather than a general position on a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

So what should employers be doing?

It is possible that tensions may arise in the workplace, either where employees have opposing beliefs or an employee expresses views perceived by others as being offensive and/or inappropriate.

Employers should take appropriate action when reasonably expected standards of workplace behaviour are breached. It is always a good idea to plan ahead and prepare.

Employers should:

  • Update policies: ensure your policies set out clear expectations of behaviour – a social media policy is important too because beliefs expressed outside of work can’t always be kept separate from the workplace
  • Consider refreshing employee training on anti-discrimination and expected workplace behaviours
  • Take issues seriously because the test for a belief to be protected is pretty low; employers should avoid disregarding employee beliefs and approach these issues in a reasonable way
  • Train managers on these issues to ensure they understand the law and how to handle issues that arise
  • Encourage informal resolutions because prevention is always better than the cure