It is not easy to reduce the Charlie Hebdo murders to employment law, but courtesy of one Aysh Chaudhry, here goes anyway.
Mr Chaudhry, a trainee at international law firm Clifford Chance, filmed a twenty-one minute video message within days after the killings in France. It is widely available on YouTube if you really want, but essentially it was an exposition of his views that the West had brought the Charlie Hebdo attack on itself, that Western ideologies (including, ironically, freedom of speech) were bankrupt and that Muslims expressing regret for those events had been mentally “colonised” and were “weak”. Non-Muslims were referred to repeatedly as “Kuffar”, a term which Mr Chaudhry would certainly have known to be dismissive and derogatory. A number of commentators described it as “the language of terror”.
As an exercise in reconciliation or encouraging inter-faith understanding in these most difficult of times, the video therefore has its limits. As an example of testing an employer’s tolerance for freedom to manifest one’s religion, however, it is an absolute belter.
Clifford Chance is very properly retaining its usual swan-like serenity on the surface, but that belies the furious debate which must be going on behind the scenes. The firm must have regard not only to the usual considerations of free speech –v- corporate impact, etc., but also to the unique nature of a legal training contract, which by regulation limits the employer’s right to dismiss trainees mid-way through the two year term to “unacceptable conduct”.
Leaving aside the training contract point, if you were Mr Chaudhry’s employer what would you do? Is this merely an exuberant manifestation of a strongly-held religious belief intended for a private audience only, or does it cross the line into something more serious?
Clifford Chance has taken a lot of flak for not bundling Mr Chaudhry out of the door immediately, but in fairness to both it and him, these things do call for some calm consideration of the effect of the individual’s belief-driven behaviour on the employer before any final decision is taken. In the end, however, the firm may be left with little option but to ask him to leave. This is not about Islam or any other religion, nor about Mr Chaudhry’s freedom to believe whatever he wants about the rights and wrongs of the Paris attacks. It is instead surely about assessing the response which Mr Chaudhry’s clip will engender among clients and colleagues. Even more so, it is about what it says of his personal judgment and self-awareness both in uploading the video and in the insultingly spurious suggestion in his later apology that it was intended to do no more than “encourage intellectual debate”. It has been suggested that if Mr Chaudhry is dismissed he would have a viable religious discrimination claim, but that seems a pretty tenuous proposition in these circumstances. There is clearly a distinction to be made between your faith on the one hand and the impact on your employment of how you manifest it on the other.
For an employer which asks clients to part with considerable sums of money for the fine professional judgment of its staff (including at trainee level), it will surely be impossible to separate perception of Mr Chaudhry’s professional abilities from the catastrophic lack of personal judgment represented by his actions in this case. There are after all few other professions where it is so necessary to draw lines between what comes into your head and what comes out of your mouth. Much like this case about Christian beliefs http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/weather-man-causes-storm-through-religious-views-prospects-unsettled-heading-south-decreasing/, no one will argue against your right to think what you want, but that does not give you carte blanche to publicise your views at your employer’s expense.