HR professionals have been left bewildered as to what counts and does not count as a protected belief under the Equality Bill after “confusing” guidance released last week.
The draft Employment Statutory Code of Practice, published by the Equality and Human Rights’ Commission, explained that vegans, atheists and Scientologists could be afforded the same protection against discrimination as religious groups under the Bill.
But the government distanced itself from the code, stating it did not think that “views or opinions based on scientific or indeed political theories can be considered to be akin to religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs”.
The conflicting messages have baffled HR directors, who now fear for the reputation of the Bill, expected to become law in the autumn.
Richard Crouch, head of HR and organisational development at Somerset County Council, said the world had gone “barking mad”. “Such in-roads are detrimental to what the equalities agenda is supposed to be about, and if we are not careful it will detract into something that society as a whole no longer feels it can take seriously. This would worry me enormously as there have been great strides over the years on this agenda.”
Helen Giles, HR director at homelessness charity Broadway, agreed: “Everybody is now confused. This is a case of protection of employee rights propelling completely out of control in a way that will make people in the workplace afraid to breathe in case they offend somebody.”
Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “Until we get an end result and the Bill is passed, there will still perhaps be an air of confusion. The guidance is moving things in the right direction in terms of setting the agenda.”
Selwyn Blyth, partner in the employment group at Pinsent Masons, said his firm had been contacted by a number of worried clients. “If someone says ‘I am a spiritualist’, some people will say that is ridiculous. The problem with this law is it has gone beyond that. Employers need to listen and be receptive, because I think the temptation of some people is to be dismissive.”
Blyth cited the Grainger v Nicholson case last year, which ruled employees with eco-friendly views should be protected under equality law as those views were classed as philosophical beliefs.
Beliefs that could be protected under the Equality Bill
Source: Employers’ Forum on Belief/Pinsent Masons
John Read, employment law editor at XpertHR, said: “Although the government can, as a spokesperson indicated earlier this week, say that it didn’t intend the legislation to cover views or opinions based on scientific or political theories, the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Grainger specifically stated that philosophical beliefs based on science or a political philosophy might be protected.
“Until the government decides to legislate on the issue, the courts will continue to determine the extent of the legislation, and enterprising claimants will continue to test the limits.”
Naeema Choudry, partner at Eversheds, added that employers would have to get their heads around the Bill. “They are going to have to take beliefs more seriously and appreciate it’s a wider issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean every request you get is going to have to be accepted.”