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Handle with care - workplace discrimination

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A recent decision by the Employment Tribunal has highlighted the need for employers to handle cases of discrimination with extreme sensitivity. A Christian nursery assistant was wrongly dismissed from her employment after a discussion with a lesbian colleague in which she expressed her belief that homosexuality was a sin. This conversation upset her colleague, and led to the nursery assistant’s dismissal, which has been confirmed as discriminatory by Watford Employment Tribunal.

At first glance, many employers will wonder why the tribunal found in favour of an employee who had admitted to beliefs at odds with wider society and gone on to share those beliefs in workplace. A recent case in Northern Ireland found that a bakery was in breach of equality legislation due to its decision to refuse to prepare a cake supporting gay marriage, despite the owners’ defence that their Christian beliefs prevented them from doing so.

However, closer attention to the tribunal’s judgment reveal the reasons for this particular decision. The employer had sought to characterise the claimant’s behaviour prior to the conversation as harassment, including the present of a Bible. However the Tribunal concluded that in actual fact no investigation had taken place and that the details of the allegations had not been put to the claimant prior to the disciplinary meeting taking place.

The employer had little or no evidence to support its belief that the claimant had targeted her colleague due to her sexuality. Instead the tribunal concluded that it had formed stereotypical assumptions about the claimant and her beliefs, noting in particular that she had given a Bible to a heterosexual colleague. Furthermore the conversation in question was initiated and continued by the claimant’s colleague and despite this being in breach of the employer’s policy banning discussions on religious topics, no action was taken against this individual. As such, the decision to dismiss was an act of unlawful discrimination.

The judgment reinforces the importance of an employer following a fair disciplinary process, even in circumstances in which an employee lacks the qualifying length of service. Furthermore, it is unlawful to discriminate against those employees who have a genuinely held belief that homosexuality is a sin, as the Tribunal has already accepted this as a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society. It is clear that a sensitive approach is needed when the sexuality of one employee appears to conflict with the beliefs of another and avoiding a “knee jerk” reaction (as evident in this case), will be crucial.

By employment law solicitor, Martha McKinley