Mr Chondol, a committed Christian, was employed by Liverpool County Council as a social worker (and seconded to Mersey Care NHS Trust). He was summarily dismissed on 27 May 2007 following disciplinary proceedings, which had been commenced in respect of a number of allegations of misconduct. These included giving a service user a Bible and promoting Christianity to service users despite being told that it was inappropriate for social workers to do so.
Chondol brought an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal and unlawful discrimination contrary to the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.
In respect of the discrimination claim, Chondol claimed he had suffered direct discrimination as he had been dismissed because of his Christianity, and so had been treated less favourably on the grounds of his religion than others would have been treated.
The tribunal rejected Chondol’s claims. In response to the claim of unlawful direct discrimination, it found that he had not been treated less favourably on the ground of his religion itself, but rather he was dismissed for “improperly foisting” his religion on the service users. His Christianity was relevant to the reason for the dismissal, but it was not the reason for the dismissal.
Liverpool County Council, the tribunal found, would have acted in the same way regardless of the religion that it was believed Chondol had been promoting. He was, therefore, not treated differently to another person on grounds of his religion.
Chondol appealed, arguing, among other things, that the tribunal had used the wrong comparator. He claimed this should have been someone “of either no belief or of an unrelated belief” who also foisted his views on others, not someone of a similarly protected belief.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the appeal, noting that it could see nothing wrong with the tribunal’s description of the correct comparator in these circumstances as a person who, in the course of his work, inappropriately promoted any religion or other strong personal view.
More importantly, it held that debating the correct comparator was academic, because the council’s true reason for the dismissal was Chondol’s promotion of his religion to service users, and not his religion itself.
Chondol’s appeal against the finding that the dismissal was fair was also not upheld.
This case serves as a useful illustration that, in such discrimination cases, technical issues surrounding the identification of the comparator are often much less important than identifying the actual reason for the relevant treatment.
Here, as the actual reason was the inappropriate promotion of religion and not the religion itself, the action was not discriminatory. This meant the identity of the appropriate comparator was not relevant.
The decision will give some comfort to employers wanting to tackle problem behaviour with employees where their actions are related to their religious belief. But care should always be taken in such circumstances, as the line between the religion itself, and the employee’s actions as a result of it, will not always be easy to draw.