A UK Employment Appeal Tribunal recently rejected the argument that a statement about the former Pope, containing an expletive, constituted harassment on the ground of religious belief. The Tribunal understood that the statement in question upset a Catholic sub-editor of a newspaper. However, it concluded that it was not reasonable for this sub-editor to claim that the comment violated his dignity and created an adverse environment, which are necessary ingredients for a harassment claim in the UK.

The Times newspaper was preparing a story about the former Pope relating to allegations that he had protected a paedophile priest. The story had the working title “the Pope”. There was a delay in producing the story and one of the editors shouted across the newsroom “can anyone tell me what’s happening to the f***ing Pope?” When there was no response he repeated the question even louder. A Catholic sub-editor was offended and upset by this statement. He raised a complaint internally with the newspaper and when he felt his complaint was not properly progressed internally, proceeded to bring a claim to a UK Employment Tribunal for harassment on the ground of religious belief. The Employment Tribunal and on appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal, rejected the sub-editor’s harassment claim.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal felt that the editor’s comments were not ill-intentioned, anti-Catholic or directed at the former Pope or Catholics. The context in which the editor made his comment was also relevant to its effect. The comment was made in the context of an enquiry about a piece of work which was approaching a deadline. In light of this, it was not reasonable for the sub-editor to feel his dignity had been violated or that an adverse environment had been created, as he had claimed. The Tribunal also noted that the editor should not have used an expletive in a sentence about the former Pope as it might be considered disrespectful “by a pious Catholic of tender sensibilities”. However, it concluded that people are not perfect and sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly and a reasonable person should make allowances for that.

Employers should note from this case that it is important to investigate employee grievances thoroughly and in accordance with their grievance policies. Such grievances can often be solved internally without recourse to more formal processes which only serves to delay matters and increase costs.