With the general election now over, employers may take the view that politics should not be brought into the workplace.
But how easy is it to stop employees expressing their political views, and to discipline or even dismiss those who refuse to comply?
Expressing views in the workplace
The UK does, of course, have the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. However, these regulations clearly state that 'religion or belief' means any religion, religious belief, or similar philosophical belief. Surprisingly, DTI guidelines specifically state that political views are not protected by the regulations. Political views do not amount to anything as philosophical as a religious belief, at least according to the DTI.
However, everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This stems from the European Convention on Human Rights and is now found in Article 10 of the annex to the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The right is stated to include the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This must be the starting point for all employers. While it sounds very grand, it is not an absolute right.
As employers will be aware, the position differs slightly in relation to the enforcement of the rights in the HRA, depending on whether an employer can be described as a 'public' employer. It is important to note that the rights enshrined in the HRA could be indirectly enforceable against private employers in the context of employment tribunal proceedings, so employers should be aware of their employees' rights.
Of course, as with many convention rights, this freedom is qualified, and is subject to "such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society". Any interference must therefore have its basis in law and be in pursuance of one of the legitimate aims set out in Article 10, which include national security, prevention of disorder or crime, and the protection of the reputation or rights of others.
Finally, and very importantly, the interference must be 'proportionate' to the aim; in other words, the means must not be excessive to achieve the desired end. This test should be taken into account when considering disciplinary action.
An important case in relation to the right to hold and manifest political views is the case of Vo