‘Damn this false God!’ was the headline on a Daily Mail story earlier this month denouncing the aggressive secularisation of Europe. ‘Climate change is a belief’, declared other newspapers and broadcasters in response to the outcome of an employment appeal tribunal, which found that Tim Nicholson’s asserted belief in man-made climate change amounted to a philosophical belief.
When the religion or belief discrimination regulations are tested there is often an outbreak of appalled headlines, and I have to admit to being frustrated when I heard the tribunal’s ruling. But, given that the 2003 regulations no longer require philosophical belief to be similar to religious belief, the ruling seems technically correct. Commentators agree this could open up claims on issues ranging from feminism to veganism. This new dimension does not fill employers with glee, and many have questioned the intention of the legislation.
Other well-publicised cases include the Christian British Airways (BA) employee who wanted to wear a cross while at work, or the Muslim hairdresser who wanted to wear a headscarf. Both challenged either formal or informal dress codes and the employer with a formal policy (BA) won, while the hairdresser’s unwritten rule that hair should be on show was judged to be discriminatory.
Belief is, by definition, so personal that employees’ desire to practice and manifest their religion or belief in the workplace has become one of the most difficult equality issues for employers. Although the boundaries of the laws are yet to be tested, employers that have well-documented policies and engage in extensive consultation do seem to be faring better.
Much less newsworthy is how employers are managing their religiously diverse workforces. Interfaith networks have already been set up by more than half of Employers Forum on Belief (EFB) members to support employees and provide a ready-made focus group, making effective consultation much easier. Faith-based police associations provide both staff representation and vital community intelligence.
More than 80% of EFB members provide prayer rooms or quiet space, and these are generally managed harmoniously by the users of the rooms. The EFB’s guide to quiet rooms reinforces the need for clear rules; employers taking a more casual approach often find themselves managing conflict between users and accommodating congregational prayers.
As with other employment matters, communication and understanding the needs of different groups is vital. Employers must aim to accommodate the religious needs of their staff if it does not inconvenience others or have a detrimental impact on their business. This test of ‘reasonable accommodation’ can catch employers out and needs more exploration.
At a recent EFB seminar, one employer admitted to agreeing to every employee request around religious belief to avoid conflict. If an employee needed time off for observance it was allowed, on full pay. If someone needed to leave their work station to pray or said they could not perform part of the job, this was accommodated without question. But this did not lead to a harmonious workplace: on the contrary, the employer complained they were increasingly finding themselves challenged and taken to tribunals. Far from understanding the needs of their employees, they were shying away from the difficult conversations and failing to engage with them.
Talking about religion at work makes many people uncomfortable. But getting over the sensitivities is vital in the pursuit of workplace harmony. No matter how many prayer rooms employers build, or how much understanding they develop, there will still be tribunal cases that attract attention. Developing specific guidance to give employers clarity on the legislation would be a start.
The Equality Bill’s progress through Parliament provides an opportunity to re-examine the religion or belief discrimination regulations. If they are found to be too broad or result in too many unintended consequences, the government should think again.
by Rachel Krys, campaign director, Employers Forum on Belief
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