Leave your cross at the door!

Be it ethics, politics or culture we all bring our beliefs to work. How we allow those beliefs to influence our work varies and for the most part we try to fit in broadly with the values of our employer, clients and colleagues. Indeed beliefs influence the choice of employer. There may be no pacifists in the military or teetotallers in distilleries. But if there are, then they contract to carry out the duties for which they were employed. Now the European Court of Human Rights is being asked to consider whether reasonable adjustments to such duties will need to be allowed. That is adjustments so as to accommodate beliefs (though not necessarily these particular beliefs).

For many, religion is a crucial component of their way of life, and recent legislation protects them against discrimination on account of it. Beliefs also are included. Recently it was decided that, a belief in man-made climate change is capable, if genuinely held, of being a belief and therefore protected by law. It doesn’t yet seem to have opened the door to vegetarians, teetotallers or pacifists but the risk (or opportunity depending on your viewpoint) of claims in the future remains.

Employers therefore need to be careful about decisions that might be related to a person’s religion or belief in recruitment, training or discipline. There are also risks when it comes to harassment on religious grounds. It is important then to see that all employees are treated with dignity and that the workplace is an amenable, reasonably friendly, and pleasant interpersonal environment for all employees. This must apply irrespective of any religion or belief held by individual or collections of employees.

The real problems start when religion comes against up against other protected characteristics, notably sexual orientation, as happened when a registrar refused to conduct same-sex civil ceremonies or a relationship counsellor refused to advise a gay couple. Both legal cases went against the people concerned.

Now the Equality Commission is backing appeals to the European Court of Human Rights saying that the law is being judged “too narrowly”. The Commission is suggesting that employers should make reasonable adjustments, such as allowing a counsellor to counsel only those whose sexual orientation does not conflict with their beliefs. Presumably also allowing a pacifist to decline to fire a gun!

Will this reduce contentious issues or simply create more? We may have to see.

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