Q The Home Secretary has called for the police to automatically disqualify members of the British National Party from becoming police officers. Will this affect other employers?
A This is clearly an issue which will be discussed at Home Office level between the relevant stakeholders, such as the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Police officers are not strictly staff in the traditional sense of the word. Their terms and conditions of service are governed by specific regulations outlined in statute. But there may well be human rights issues that arise if this proposal is implemented.
Looking at the more common scenario, it is rare for an employer to specify in a contract of employment or staff handbook that staff cannot be members of certain political parties. In any workforce, there will be a variety of political perspectives. Many employees are involved, during their non-work time, in political organisations or in a representative role.
Usually, it is the case that as long as a worker is not engaged in political activities during the company’s time (without express permission), then the issue never comes to light. But this could change if such affiliations brought discredit or adverse publicity for the employer. Such situations would have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Q What if those views are expressed in the workplace?
A Under the provisions of the Human Rights Act, the right to privacy is one of the key rights afforded to individuals. The right to privacy has a number of facets, including the right of privacy of personal behaviour, sexual preference and political activity.
However, the right in relation to political activity (in its broadest sense) is somewhat counterbalanced by discrimination legislation. The ambit of discrimination legislation has been broadened by recent legislative developments that provide protection for gay/lesbian staff and those who hold certain religious or philosophical beliefs.
It is not for an employer to make value judgements about workers’ political activities or views. However, an employer may want to remind staff that the privacy and dignity of all individuals in a workplace must be respected.
The general tenor of the new equality regulations is that staff who are gay/lesbian or hold certain religious and or philosophical beliefs shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their orientation/beliefs. Under established legislation, if offensive comments were made to a worker on the grounds of gender, race or disability, it could also amount to harassment.
Q What should an employer do?
A The person making comments should be reminded that although they have a right to have certain political views, people who may not hold those political views or may be offended by them should also be respected. If such behaviour continues, disciplinary action may have to be taken.
Such situations must be dealt with sensitively on a case-by-case basis. Should an employer be facing a dismissal situation, it would be imperative that the reason for dismissal was not made on the grounds of political association, but because the behaviour was so aggressive or demeaning that it amounted to misconduct.