Last reviewed 26 October 2023

Conflicting beliefs at work is, for the most part, inevitable at some stage. When a group are brought together connected only by their employer, it is likely they are going to have different religious, ethical, moral or political beliefs. It is therefore imperative that employers manage any issues that arise as a result of conflicting beliefs, before they escalate and cause problems within the workforce, with customers or suppliers.

Stacie Cheadle, Croner-i employment law researcher and writer, looks at ways employers can manage conflicting beliefs in the workplace, and why it is so important do so.

Politics at work

With so much going on in the world around us, it is likely that certain topics will come up during the working day. The various UK political parties have just held their Autumn conferences, and released their plans for government, which along with signs of a potential general election coming, will have made many think about their own political position and want to discuss this with others.

However, as we all know, politics can be divisive and lead to arguments at work. This can impact negatively on employee morale, as well as performance and productivity as employees become distracted. Taken too far, it can even lead some employees to feel bullied and harassed at work, which could give rise to a claim before an employment tribunal.

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA) specifically excludes political beliefs from the “religion/belief” protected characteristic. However, a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Redfearn v UK [2012] led to legal change on to provide some support to employees on this. Redfearn stood for election as a BNP Councillor in Bradford, a particularly multi-racial part of the UK. He was a bus driver and his employer was concerned that he might be attacked, and that this would put his health and safety, and that of his passengers, at risk. As a result, he was dismissed. He was not able to bring a claim of religion/belief discrimination because political beliefs are not covered, and his race discrimination claim failed because he was not dismissed because of his race. However, the ECHR found he had suffered a breach of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of assembly and association). As a result of this ruling, the usual qualifying period of service when bringing a claim of unfair dismissal relating to political belief or affiliation was removed in 2013.

Whilst employees cannot make a claim of harassment or discrimination under the EqA, if they are getting agitated it is still appropriate to intervene. If what they perceive as bullying affects their health they could argue that the employer has not provided a safe place of work (psychologically) under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.

Employer decisions

It may be that the conflict arises when an employee disagrees with an employer’s decision, as it conflicts with their own philosophical beliefs. Not only can this cause friction in the workplace, potentially leading to grievances and the loss of valuable staff, but again it could lead to tribunal, which brings additional costs in terms of both company time and money.

In November, we mark the end of the Great War and the service of those who have given their lives whilst defending the UK with Remembrance Sunday. Poppies are sold and worn to raise money to support service people, and to show individual respect for them. However, for various reasons, some employers may decide the wearing of a poppy is not appropriate for their workplace, as was the case in Lisk v Sheild Guardian, a decision which lead to a claim for discrimination based on the protected characteristic of philosophical belief.

Lisk was an ex-serviceman and a practising Christian. He claimed that his employer prevented him from wearing a poppy from 2 November to Remembrance Sunday on 11 November and that this amounted to discrimination on the grounds of his philosophical belief that wearing a poppy was necessary to show respect to those who gave their lives in war.

It was not doubted that Lisk had a strong belief. To determine whether it amounted to a philosophical belief as defined in the EqA, the tribunal had to decide if Lisk’s belief satisfied the test first set out in Nicholson v Grainger [2009]. Under this test, to be protected, the belief must be:

  • genuinely held

  • not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available

  • relating to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour

  • attaining a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance

  • worthy of respect in a democratic society, and not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

The tribunal held that whilst Lisk's view was genuinely held and not an opinion, it was too narrow to be a philosophical belief, and did not relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. The tribunal also found that it lacked cogency, seriousness and cohesion. On that basis, it was not a philosophical belief under the EqA and Lisk did not succeed in their claim.

When beliefs lead to dismissal

It can happen that the expression of an individual’s belief conflicts so much with their employer’s business that it is felt there is no choice but to terminate the individual’s employment. This is the ultimate form of dealing with conflicting beliefs at work, and can be a risky strategy if not done correctly or where it is based on a protected belief.

November is World Vegan Month, and so it seems fitting the next case is one that dealt with an individual’s belief in ethical veganism. In the case of Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College, claims for indirect and direct philosophical belief discrimination were brought against an employer following the employee’s summary dismissal for her connection to an animal rights group that endorsed law breaking which she herself had participated in, including trespass and theft.

The claimant relied on her belief in ethical veganism, and said that this belief placed upon her an obligation to take action to reduce suffering by animals, even where fulfilment of that obligation meant trespass and removal of the animals from another’s property. This belief led her to enter private property and remove a sick turkey, which was found in her flat following a police raid and contributed to the decision to dismiss her.

In this case, the tribunal was clear that without this obligation for illegal actions, it would have found that this belief fell under s.10 of the Equality Act 2010 (ie a philosophical belief) — even if it included the obligation to take lawful action, such as protesting. The law breaking, however, was too much for this belief to be protected and meant that this belief did not meet all the tests in Grainger — it was not worthy of respect in a democratic society, as it was not down to individuals to decide which laws they should and should not follow. As a result, this claim was lost.

Final thoughts

Dealing with conflicting beliefs at work in a constructive manner is essential for a harmonious work environment and to avoid legal liability, as we can see in the case examples above.