Most employers should be familiar with the law surrounding discrimination; the Equality Act 2010 safeguards employees in their workplaces and outlines nine protected characteristics, namely, gender, race, gender transition, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy and maternity, disability, marriage and civil partnership, and religion or beliefs. An employee has the right not be discriminated against or harassed because of their protected characteristics.
The characteristic of beliefs and what they constitute has always been controversial and the Tribunals have decided a number of cases in this regard. The precedent from the Employment Appeal Tribunal is that, in order to be protected by the Equality Act:
- The belief must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint.
- It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
- It must “have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief”.
- It need not be shared by others.
Using these factors, environmentalism and a belief in climate change has fallen within the remit of the Equality Act, as has an anti-foxhunting belief, a belief that lying is always wrong and a belief in public service for the common good.
A recent case has also considered whether vegetarianism qualifies as a philosophical belief therefore worthy of protection by the Equality Act.
In the case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd an employee attempted to sue his former employer, having resigned after five just months of employment. He claim that his belief in “vegetarianism” ought to qualify as a philosophical belief and that he had been harassed on the grounds of this belief at his workplace.
In this case, the Tribunal accepted the Claimant’s passionate belief in vegetarianism. However, they stated that vegetarianism did not concern a substantial enough aspect of human life to qualify as a protected philosophical belief; merely holding a belief that related to an important aspect of human life was not enough in itself. The Tribunal’s reasoning was that vegetarianism was not about human life nor about human behaviour but rather, it founded itself as a lifestyle choice. It also did not have similar status or cogency as a religious belief did. Meaning, it was a belief that did not qualify for protection under the Equality Act and as a result the Claimant’s claim was rejected at the Tribunal.
However, the Tribunal felt compelled to comment on veganism, hinting it may qualify as a belief that was worthy of protection under the Equality Act. “Why veganism and not vegetarianism?” You may ask. The answer to this comes down to reasoning, or “why” someone might be vegan. On the face of it, the reasons for someone to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle can be extremely varied and was not always rooted in a belief but also caused by personal taste or health concerns. However, with regards to a vegan lifestyle, the Tribunal indicated that vegans have the same underlying motives and belief for their veganism; namely, all vegans hold specific concerns and beliefs in relation to animals, their killing and uphold such beliefs to climate change too. As a result, it was deemed that there was a clear and succinct belief within a vegan lifestyle, which did not consistently appear in a vegetarian lifestyle.
No further case law or any legal precedents have been set or established on veganism, but this clearly is a niche topic within the law that certainly holds an interesting future.
In order to ensure that, at your workplace, you don’t behave in any discriminatory nature towards vegans, you should always ensure that they have equality of opportunity (e.g. they are not excluded from any work events or networking opportunities) and ensure that vegans are not harassed for any such beliefs.
In the case of Conisbee the Claimant alleged that he had been called “gay” because he was a vegetarian. You should ensure that workplaces are not hostile environments and that you have an Anti-Bullying and Harassment policy in place to ensure employees know how to behave. Quite aside from the vegetarian issue, here at Thrive Law, we think that if more comments had been made about the Claimant being “gay” because he was a vegetarian, there could have been sexual orientation discrimination in this matter.
If you require any assistance with your bullying and harassment policies, or if you are perhaps being bullied because of your religion or belief, or for any other reason, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Written by Uthman El-Dharrat and Alicia Collinson