Yesterday, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed in the case of Wasteney –v- East London NHS Foundation Trust EAT 0157/15 that an evangelical ‘born again’ Christian worker accused of ‘grooming’ a female Muslim member of staff had not been discriminated against nor had she been harassed by her employer on the grounds of her religion or belief when disciplined for imposing her religious views.
Ms Wasteney, the head of forensic occupational therapy at East London NHS Foundation Trust, was subject to disciplinary action following complaints by a junior female Muslim colleague that she had endured such acts as the claimant praying with her, the laying on of hands, repeated invitations to attend her church and by being given a book concerning the conversion of a female Muslim to the Christian faith.
The Trust found Ms Wasteney’s actions amounted to serious misconduct namely the blurring of professional boundaries and the subjection of a junior colleague to improper pressure and unwanted conduct. She was issued with a final written warning later reduced to a first written warning on appeal. Although her employment record was clear, Ms Wasteney had been counselled previously about the need to observe boundaries between her spiritual and professional lives.
Ms Wasteney complained to Tribunal of direct discrimination and harassment because of/related to her religion or belief and the manifestation of her belief in what she considered to have been ‘consensual’ interactions with her colleague. The Tribunal at first instance found that the interactions amounted to unwanted and unwelcome conduct without regard to her own position of power as head of department. The disciplinary sanction imposed upon Ms Wasteney was because of those inappropriate actions and not because of any legitimate manifestation of her belief.
Ms Wasteney appealed to the EAT on grounds including that the Tribunal had failed to pay proper regard to her right to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Right and that the sanction imposed on her was ‘oppressive’. The EAT dismissed the appeal and observed that the protections afforded by the convention, incorporated under the Equality Act, allows for the right to hold and manifest religious views and beliefs. However, whilst that freedom is guaranteed, it is both qualified and limited and in circumstances where Ms Wasteney conceded that her conduct had been inappropriate and the recipient had considered it unwelcome, the Trust had been proportionate in disciplining her for serious misconduct and as to the sanction.
Employers must consider and balance the conflicting views and beliefs of its staff with the impact the manifestation of those views may have on others. Where lines are crossed it may be appropriate and right for an employer to discipline. Employers should ensure that their dignity at work policies are regularly reviewed and advice sought when necessary to ensure the balance of the protection of personal freedoms are met.