A judge's decision that eco-friendly views were philosophical beliefs and should be protected under equality law could leave the legislation wide open for abuse by employees, according to HR professionals and campaigners.
At a pre-hearing review this week, Tim Nicholson, head of sustainability at the property firm Grainger, claimed his environmental beliefs were the reason behind a decision to make him redundant from the firm in 2008.
The judge found in Nicholson's favour, and said environmentalism had the same weight in law as religious and philosophical beliefs.
But a leading equality campaigner warned that with no definitive list of protected beliefs, employers were not aware of what could be covered by the legislation.
Rachel Krys, campaign director at the Employers Forum on Belief, told Personnel Today: "Employers really don't know who or what is protected under these regulations. People's beliefs are extremely personal to the individual; it's very hard to legislate. Employers are the ones that end up paying the price."
Helen Giles, HR director of the homeless charity Broadway, added that the ambiguity of the regulations meant they were open to abuse by staff.
She said: "These laws may have had a good foundation in wanting to make sure people were not unfairly treated, but the way they have been drafted and the way legislature is interpreting them is leaving the field wide open for people to abuse them left, right and centre. Where do you draw the line? Belief is a totally subjective thing. It's become preposterous."
With such a broad range of views that could be labelled as philosophical beliefs, Stephen Overell, associate director at The Work Foundation, warned this could lead to tensions between employers and their workforce.
The Nicholson case
Tim Nicholson sought to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal under the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003, which covers "any religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief".
In March, Nicholson was given permission to proceed with this claim at an employment tribunal, but his employer, Grainger, appealed against this decision, saying his environmental beliefs amounted to a political view, not a philosophical one.
But this week a judge ruled Nicholson's eco-friendly views were philosophical beliefs, and that he should be allowed to bring a tribunal case for unfair dismissal against his employer.
Gill Hibberd, HR director at Buckinghamshire County Council, told Personnel Today: "Employees are entitled to views but they also have a responsibility to be sensitive to how others may perceive those views.
"Equally, employers have a responsibility to ensure that employees are not treated unfairly as a consequence of their views. It's often where one or both parties step outside of what is sensible and reasonable that issues such as this occur."
"There are dozens of philosophical or ethical belief systems - veganism, socialism," he said. "These views could put you at odds with your employer, and you may find yourself sidelined from important meetings at work because of different beliefs."
Jo Stubbs, XpertHR employment law editor, added: "It's not inconceivable that employees could be mocked by fellow workers for their beliefs, leaving employers potentially liable for claims."
Meanwhile, Jonathan Exten-Wright, employment partner at DLA Piper, added that although employers could challenge the authenticity of employees' beliefs, this would be seen as "an unattractive path for employers to take and fraught with the risk of causing offence."
A report on the judge's decision can be found in the XpertHR stop press section.