Workplace Politics?

Published 11th November 2019

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We are surrounded by politics at the moment, whether it’s discussions about Brexit, election campaigning or political debate between parties. But what do employers need to know when it comes to politics in the workplace?

Political Discrimination

With so many of us spending a large proportion of our time at work it’s likely that political debate will spill over into the workplace which may raise concerns for employers that ‘political discrimination or harassment’ may take place.

As you may already be aware, employees are protected from being discriminated against or harassed because of a protected characteristic such as sex or race, but what about political beliefs? Are these a protected characteristic under the Equality Act? Not necessarily. In England and Wales political belief is not a protected characteristic in its own right, it will come down to whether or not specific beliefs amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

To qualify as a philosophical belief, a belief must:

  • Be genuinely held
  • Be a belief rather than an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society – not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

In the case of Grainger v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal stated that although support of a political party might not amount to a philosophical belief, a political doctrine or philosophy such as Marxism, Communism or free-market capitalism could be.

Whether someone’s beliefs will amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act will depend on the facts of the case. A few examples from case law:

  • An employee’s belief in democratic socialism connected to his involvement in the Labour party amounted to a philosophical belief. It was found amongst other things that the employee’s belief was not just an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of the information available, the employee had more than a passing interest in the Labour party, he had a strong interest in and connection with the party’s history and moral tenets and this affected how he conducted his life. He was not merely a ‘political animal’ who chose to support a particular political party (Olivier v Department for Work and Pensions )
  • An employee’s genuine and deeply held belief in Scottish independence amounted to a philosophical belief. It was amongst other things, found to be more than just a political opinion and was based on the employee’s “fundamental belief in the right of Scotland to national sovereignty”. However, the employee’s belief in the social democratic value of the Scottish National Party was found not to amount to a philosophical belief on the facts of the case (McEleny v Ministry of Defence)
  • An employee’s belief that ‘‘mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and therefore we were under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe for the benefit of future generations, and to persuade others to do the same” was held to be a philosophical belief. (Grainger v Nicholson)

As it can be difficult for employers to know what beliefs will amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act it is important to ensure that all employees are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and that includes how colleagues treat each other. If an employee complains about how they have been treated, it’s important to deal with the matter promptly and appropriately. If a complaint is raised in your organisation you should contact your Employment Law Specialist for advice on handling the matter.

Dismissal on Political Grounds

There is some further measure of protection for employees if they are dismissed for reasons relating to their political opinions or affiliations. In this situation, employees do not need to have two years continuity of service to be able to claim that they have been unfairly dismissed. It’s important to bear this in mind to avoid getting caught out, particularly if you are considering a quick ‘unsuitability’ termination for an employee who has under two years’ service. It’s always important to seek advice on the facts of your case before dismissing any employee, no matter their length of service.

Time Off to Vote in the Election

There is no legal requirement for employers to give employees time off work to vote in the election. As polling stations will be open from 7am to 10pm on polling day (12th December) most employees will have the opportunity outside working hours to vote if they wish to do so. There are also alternative voting methods available, such as postal voting, for anyone who may not be able to make it to the polling station.

That said, if an employee does ask for time off to vote and there is something peculiar to their situation that would mean they are unable to do so in their own time, you may wish to agree that they can take holiday if they have sufficient time left, make up the time if this is possible in their role or take it as unpaid time off. If you receive a request for time off to vote, your Employment Law Specialist will be happy to discuss your situation with you.

If you have any employment law matter you would like assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact Kingfisher Professional Services Ltd as we are happy to help.

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