05 March 2013
Don’t let beliefs become bullying tactics
Companies who employ a team of staff with wide-ranging backgrounds and beliefs often find the sheer diversity of their workforce is one of the keys to their success. But what happens when staff use their powers of persuasion on other, more controversial, non-work related issues, such as religion, politics, animal rights or immigration?
At one level we’re all familiar with the football fanatic who tries everything to persuade his colleagues to support “his” team, or the dedicated fitness bunnies who insist on swapping doughnuts for healthy fruit at Monday morning meetings.
But there is a real difference between employees chatting about their beliefs over a lunch break and staff actively distributing leaflets or putting up posters in an attempt to convert others to their cause.
Jo Davis, partner and employment practice group leader at leading Buckinghamshire law firm B P Collins LLP, says it is up to employers to judge what could reasonably be seen as offensive and to put appropriate guidelines in place as part of their HR policy.
“It’s not a question of stifling debate and free speech in the workplace, but employers do need to be able to have a moderating effect to ensure discussions remain within reasonable parameters,” she said.
“While staff have a basic right to demonstrate their beliefs and viewpoints, it’s important that they don’t discriminate against or offend others while they are doing so. If another employee is made to feel uncomfortable, it can have a negative impact on morale and productivity and you risk leaving your firm open to bullying and harassment claims.”
Davis recommends that a policy on how staff express their beliefs in the workplace should be clearly outlined in the bullying and harassment section of a company’s HR procedures.
“You should emphasise that discussion is welcome but it must not be used to oppress or discriminate against other staff,” she continued. “Spell it out – for example, it is acceptable for an employee to mention that they go to church or campaign for the Green Party, but if they start pressurising other people, that isn't.”
She warns that if the policy is unclear, there is a danger the employee could claim that a company is discriminating against them based on their belief. She says therefore, it’s important to state you will not discriminate against people because they are open about their beliefs, but the moment they try to convert someone and that person may take offence –it becomes is a form of harassment.
If this happens, then Davis says the first step for the employer is to suggest the employee speaks directly to the individual concerned, or offer to do it on their behalf. While in most cases, someone maybe unaware of the effect their behaviour has had, if it continues, it becomes a disciplinary issue.
She concluded: “Use your own judgement, if the employee’s behaviour can reasonably be thought to be offensive, it needs to be stopped and having a policy in place to deal with it will make the process much more effective.”