Ethical veganism in the workplace
An Employment Tribunal has ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief capable of protection against discrimination under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 – but what does this mean for businesses?
It is generally understood that certain characteristics are protected under the law, those being race, age, sex, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership and disability (these are known as protected characteristics). Discrimination, harassment and victimisation are prohibited in the workplace in respect of those characteristics.
Ethical veganism as a philosophical belief
Philosophical beliefs are one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act. In order to be considered a philosophical belief capable of protection, it must satisfy a number of tests:
- It must be genuinely held;
- It must be a belief and not just an opinion or viewpoint;
- It must be as to a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society; and
- It must not be incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
On Friday 3 January 2020, Employment Judge Robin Postle found that ethical veganism satisfied the tests above and is therefore capable of protection as a philosophical belief.
Ethical veganism is different from dietary veganism; as well as eating a plant-based diet, ethical vegans also aim to exclude all forms of animal exploitation from their lifestyle. For example, ethical vegans do not buy toiletries from companies that test their products on animals and do not buy leather or wool products.
Interestingly, vegetarianism has been found by a different Employment Judge not to be a philosophical belief. However, it is looks to be likely that the legal protection will continue to be extended to more beliefs as they become common within our society over the years.
Most businesses will already be aware of the risk that an employee will bring a discrimination claim against them, particularly in circumstances where they have been dismissed. Race, religion, sex and disability related discrimination claims are particularly common.
However, in light of the decision on Friday, employers should think about whether they could be at risk of an ethical veganism related discrimination claim being brought against them. Businesses should consider being more vegan-friendly if they have employees who are ethical vegans. For example, they may want to consider introducing vegan options in the cafeteria, cruelty free soap in the toilets and uniforms and furniture that does not contain wool or leather.
Employers should also be aware of conversations between colleagues in the workplace. Most employees know that they cannot make racist, homophobic or sexist remarks at work. Such behaviour could constitute harassment under the law. However, philosophical beliefs are different from some of the other protected characteristics in that they are by their very nature apt for discussion.
Ethical veganism is exactly the sort of subject that makes for an interesting debate. Some people in a workplace may not agree with ethical veganism in that they would argue that it would be cruel not to shear sheep or that farmers’ livelihoods depend upon the consumption of animal products. It may surprise you that there is a risk that an ethical vegan overhearing this argument, even if it was not directed at them, could be offended.
When does a debate become harassment?
Employers should be aware that for someone to bring a harassment claim, they need only show that there was unwanted conduct related to that belief which either violated their dignity or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment for them. The intention of the person accused of the conduct is irrelevant, i.e. it does not matter if it was just a joke or not intended to offend.
However, there is an objective element to the test which is intended to discourage a culture of hypersensitivity and avoid making employers liable where an employee, in an employment tribunal’s view, unreasonably takes offence to something.
With all of the above in mind, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where someone could pursue a claim for harassment relating to their philosophical belief in ethical veganism. Discrimination claims can be costly, time consuming and bad for a business’ reputation.
The employment team at B P Collins LLP can provide your business and staff with bespoke discrimination and diversity training and a tailored equal opportunities policy. Taking steps such as these cannot only help to protect your business, it can also keep your workplace free from discrimination, raise staff morale and help with the retention and recruitment of staff. For further guidance, please contact Amy Cooper or Jo Davis in our employment team on 01751 200716 or firstname.lastname@example.org.