Weekly dilemma: Philosophical beliefs

An employee has complained under the company’s harassment procedure. She says that her colleagues have been laughing at her because she is a vegan, and she’s told them to stop. She believes their conduct amounts to unlawful harassment. I’ve had a look at our harassment policy, and while it does refer to harassment on a number of grounds, it doesn’t say anything about veganism.

Your employee may be able to argue that the conduct amounted to harassment on the grounds of her philosophical belief of veganism.

The Equality Act 2006 introduces a wider definition of philosophical belief. The change was due to come into force at the end of October 2006, but the government has now delayed implementation until April 2007. The new definition removes the requirement that a philosophical belief must be linked to a religion. This opens up the possibility that, after April 2007, a variety of philosophical beliefs may be covered.

Therefore, in anticipation of this change, it is best practice to treat this complaint seriously and follow your harassment policy. Once the legislation changes, an employee could bring a complaint to an employment tribunal claiming that they have been harassed because of their philosophical beliefs.

If such an employee were to pursue a complaint in an employment tribunal, it is likely that they would need to prove that this belief was of a sufficiently serious nature. A passing interest in veganism is unlikely to constitute a philosophical belief. An employee will also have to prove that their colleagues’ behaviour amounted to harassment in law.

An employer’s defence in this situation is to prove that they have done everything that is reasonably practicable to prevent the harassment taking place. That means you need to take the complaint seriously, and ensure you educate staff on what is appropriate to say to their colleagues in the workplace.

By David Walker, partner, employment, Dundas& Wilson

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Each week we ask the experts to answer your legal dilemmas. If you have a legal question or dilemma, e-mail dawn.spalding@rbi.co.uk


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