25 January 2013
Guidelines for controlling staff who promote strong beliefs at work
Building a diverse, strong-minded workforce can help create an innovative atmosphere where employees are not afraid to put their ideas forward. However, if you don't have guidelines controlling how staff express their views on controversial, non-work-related issues, it could cause problems for your business.
When staff are discussing their views at work, there is a difference between employees chatting about their beliefs over a lunch break and staff distributing leaflets or putting up posters in an attempt to convert others to their cause. It is up to you as the employer to judge what could reasonably be seen as offensive. Contentious issues could include views on religion, atheism, politics, social class, or single issues such as abortion or the war in Afghanistan.
The last thing you want to do is to stifle people, but employers need to have a moderating effect on debate to ensure it remains within reasonable parameters. However, unless you control how employees express their views and beliefs in the workplace, your productivity may be affected and you risk leaving your firm open to bullying and harassment claims.
Business risks of staff beliefs
While your staff have a basic right to manifest their beliefs and viewpoints, you need to make sure that they don't discriminate against or offend other staff while doing so. If an employee communicates their views in a way that makes another employee uncomfortable, it can have a negative impact on morale and productivity.
Bear in mind that if an employee feels undermined, for example if someone emails them trying to convert them to their religion or constantly makes controversial comments, they may become stressed and take time off, which is expensive for an employer.
This behaviour can also lead to claims of bullying, if it's in relation to a political or social viewpoint, or harassment if the staff member is making comments that undermine someone based on their religion, ethnicity or gender.
At the extreme end, any behaviour that discriminates on grounds of religion — including having no religion — is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.
Develop a balanced HR policy
To prevent problems in the first place, your policy on how staff express their beliefs in the workplace should be clearly outlined in the bullying and harassment section of your HR procedures.
Emphasise that discussion is welcome but that it must not be used to oppress or discriminate against other staff. 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.
If your policy is unclear, there is a danger that the employee could claim that you are discriminating against them based on their belief. State that you will not discriminate against people because they are open about their beliefs, but the moment they try to convert someone, that person may take offence — and that is a form of harassment.
The first step you should take if this happens is to suggest that the employee speaks directly to the alleged perpetrator, or offer to have a quiet word yourself.
In most cases, people are genuinely unaware of the effect their behaviour has had. If they carry on, it becomes a disciplinary issue, and you should follow the Acas guidelines. Use your own judgement, but if the employee's behaviour can be reasonably thought to be offensive it needs to be stopped.