Is my vegetarianism a protected characteristic?

17 September 2019

In a word, no — at least according to an employment tribunal which told a claimant that his was a lifestyle choice that does not satisfy the requirement and definition of being a philosophical belief (protected characteristic) under the Equality Act 2010.

George Conisbee had been employed from April 2018 until he resigned on 30 August 2018 as a waiter/barman. His resignation letter focused on an incident when he had been told off for attending work in an unironed shirt.

It is accepted he was shouted at and may have been sworn at in front of customers. He also claimed that he had been deliberately given snacks by colleagues who later told him that they contained meat.

Mr Conisbee, who had not held his position long enough to be able to bring a claim for constructive unfair dismissal, argued that he should have the protection against discrimination provided by the 2010 Act to those with religious beliefs or of a particular sexual orientation.

The tribunal was told that his employer did not dispute that Mr Conisbee was a vegetarian nor that he has a genuine belief in his vegetarianism. It argued, however, that being a vegetarian itself cannot amount to being a protected characteristic.

The tribunal was reminded of the guidance given on the definition of philosophical belief including that, while it need not be shared by others, a belief:

  • must be genuinely held

  • must not just be an opinion or viewpoint

  • must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

  • must have a similar status or cogency to religious belief.

It was told that “as there are at least six different reasons for why one might be a vegetarian (including health/diet benefits, environmental concerns and economic benefits), there is no cogency or cohesion in that belief”.

Furthermore, many people might practice vegetarianism at some stage in their life but not maintain the practice.

In his conclusion, Judge Robin Postle said that, on balance, the tribunal was not persuaded vegetarianism amounted to a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act.

He suggested, however, that stronger arguments might be advanced for veganism (where the belief held by each vegan is fundamentally the same) and that “you can see a clear cogency and cohesion in vegan belief, which appears contrary to vegetarianism”.

See https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5d777ae2e5274a27ca983503/Mr_G_Conisbee_v_Crossley_Farms_Limited___Others-3335357-2018-OPH_Reserved_Judgment.pdf for further details.

Comment by Croner Associate Director Paul Holcroft

Establishing whether the personal beliefs or a lifestyle choice of an employee amounts to a philosophical belief, and therefore receive protections under equality law, continues to be the cause of uncertainty for employers.

This case would seem to clarify the situation somewhat, helping to reaffirm that there is a significant difference between an ethically held, deep belief in something and simply choosing a particular choice of lifestyle.

As seen here, it was not enough that the claimant labelled himself vegetarian as there are many reasons why an individual might choose to become a vegetarian; for example, people may simply prefer not to eat meat.

Employers may, therefore, breathe a sigh of relief at this ruling, but I would advise them to still be cautious. While the case does seem to confirm that it is unlikely vegetarianism will be considered a philosophical belief for the purposes of the law, it is less clear-cut on ethical veganism.

This is because, unlike vegetarianism, vegans maintain a clear belief that using any form of animal-based product is “contrary to a civilised society”. How tribunals approach the issue of philosophical belief continues to vary depending on the facts, and we may yet see future rulings that find in favour of employees.