Sexist beliefs are a protected characteristic
Over the years, beliefs around ethical veganism, anti-fox hunting, climate, and the environment have all received the seal of approval as protectable under the Equality Act. They fall under the category of religion or belief, which includes “philosophical beliefs” under discrimination laws, and are likely to be protected in the same way as gender, race, sexual orientation and all other protected characteristics. Following the decision of the EAT in Forstater vs. CGD Europe, the latest additions to this category are “gender critical” beliefs, which include the belief that a person’s biological sex cannot be changed and should not be confused with gender identity.
Where does that leave transgender employees?
What does this mean for a transgender employee who is sexist badly by another staff member who has critical gender beliefs? The EAT was extremely concerned to ensure that the decision was not misinterpreted as diminishing the rights and protections of transgender employees. He made it clear that people with critical gender beliefs cannot be gender wrong or otherwise discriminate against transgender people.
Take away for employers
This is an important case for employers because it highlights the very real possibility that sincere beliefs (on Brexit, abortion, and COVID-19 anti-vaccines, to name a few -a) may come into conflict with employees having opposing views. Employers will generally not want to take a stand on such conflicting views, but may be left with the fallout and any subsequent disputes.
Individuals generally have the right to freedom of expression, even when beliefs are unpleasant to some. According to the EAT judge, protected beliefs “may very well be deeply offensive and even distressing to many others. But these are beliefs that are and must be tolerated in a pluralist society ”.
What emerges clearly from Forstater The case is that managing conflict by not hiring or firing people with difficult opinions is a high-risk approach. Nevertheless, the risks can be reduced by educating the workforce in this space.
While a workplace dignity policy cannot dictate which beliefs are acceptable, it can set out the ground rules for how opinions are expressed in the workplace, especially where they are likely to enter. in conflict with other beliefs. Don’t be afraid to recognize that this can be tricky and will require employees to think ahead of how their manifestation of their beliefs might end up with other employees having different points of view. Social media policies should also be reviewed to review what is said about comments made online or otherwise outside of the work environment.
Even the best-written policy will have limited effect if it’s on a shelf on the intranet. It should be animated by training that incorporates the message that there are limits to how beliefs manifest in the workplace. Dignity at work training with nuanced examples, which allows participants to debate, challenge and hear alternative points of view, can be both powerful and effective.
If you would like to learn more about how the EAT made its decision, a case report can be found here.