With a General Election taking place on 8 June 2017, continued uncertainty regarding the consequences of last year’s Brexit vote and the potential for a second independence referendum, politics is a hot topic. What are the workplace risks to be aware of?

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) prohibits direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment in the workplace in respect of a person’s religion or belief (whether religious or philosophical). This protection includes a lack of such beliefs.

More detail on types of discrimination can be found on Workbox.

What is a philosophical belief?

To amount to a philosophical belief, covered by the Act, a belief must:

  • Be genuinely held;
  • Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • Be held in relation to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Is a political belief protected?

Membership or support for a political party itself is not a protected philosophical belief. However, an employee may be protected against discrimination because they have a strong belief in a political philosophy – looking at the employee’s political affiliation and whether they strongly identify with the party’s values.

  • Membership of the BNP was found not to be a protected philosophical belief in two early tribunal decisions.
  • The Employment Appeal Tribunal suggested in Grainger Plc & ors v Nicholson that ‘support of a political party’ does not fall within the scope of ‘philosophical belief’, however, a belief in the ‘political philosophies of Socialism, Marxism, Communism or free-market Capitalism might qualify’.
  • In Olivier v Department of Work and Pensions a Labour councillor was allowed to proceed with a religion or belief discrimination claim. While mere support of the Labour Party was not enough to warrant protection, his political belief in ‘democratic socialism’ was a philosophical belief.

Unfair dismissal claims

The two-year qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims does not apply in cases where the reason for dismissal is the employee’s political beliefs or affiliation. This does not mean that such a dismissal will be automatically unfair, but simply that it may be challenged by employees who would not normally satisfy the two-year qualifying period for claims.

In practice

In theory the protection against discrimination for workers with strongly held political beliefs could extend to views on Scottish independence and separation from the EU. Particularly in the current political climate, employees could well be vocal about their political beliefs at work leading to, for example, potential harassment issues.

There are steps you can take to help prevent discrimination in the workplace and minimise the risk of claims, for example:

  • Have up-to-date policies in place on equal opportunities; anti-harassment and bullying; email, internet and social media.
  • Make all employees aware of relevant policies and the potential consequences of breaching them.
  • Encourage employees to be respectful of other people’s views. Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to objectionable language and behaviour.
  • Deal effectively with complaints, and take appropriate disciplinary action in response to a breach.
  • Train managers and supervisors in equal opportunities and harassment issues.
  • If disciplining someone with a known strongly held political belief, document the process and the rationale for the decision carefully, in order to be able to refute any allegations of discrimination.