Management Director Crossland Employment Solicitors
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How does business climate action affect HR?

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As COP26 ramps up, employment solicitor Beverley Sunderland clarifies how climate action will affect the HR profession, alongside employment legal implications and what they need to know to play their part.

9th Nov 2021
Management Director Crossland Employment Solicitors
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Employers and employees are increasingly alive to the climate crisis and the need to act now to save our planet before irreparable harm is caused. The crisis has become ever more undeniable after the IPCC recently reported ‘code red for humanity’. 

It is hoped that COP26, hosted in Glasgow, will lead to real and concerted action. But what does this mean to HR?

Environmental policies and objectives

HR professionals are at the forefront of driving climate awareness and change in the workplace

Whilst organisations are not legally obliged to have a climate or environmental policy, it may well become a legal requirement and social expectation to have one and there has been a marked increase in responses to tenders for companies to set out the steps they are taking to combat climate change. 

Adopting environmental objectives and policies now will not only give businesses a competitive and recruiting edge but will play a pivotal role in achieving the goal of cutting emissions by 78% by 2035. 

Such policies will need to be business and industry-specific. They may include:

  • becoming paperless, 

  • reducing or cutting international and local business travel, 

  • having more business meetings via zoom/facetime, and 

  • reducing emissions by encouraging home working or alternative modes of transport. 

Companies providing vehicles for their employees should look at electric vehicles and install charging points.

HR should consider the importance of environmental policies and objectives in retaining and recruiting employees. 

The entire working population and certainly the younger generations are increasingly climate-conscious (many of whom would class themselves as being climate activists). And they are looking to work for organisations where their environmental values align with their own. 

In a recent study by Censuswide (2020), 65% of 2,000 respondents said that they were more likely to work for a company with strong environmental policies. With the current skill shortage in the UK, HR are already under increasing pressure to recruit staff, attracting employees by showing that they are a sustainable business committed to combating climate change is crucial now more than ever. 

An employee may refuse to fly from London to Edinburgh for a business trip based on their climate beliefs. 

Be prepared for challenges appearing in the workplace

The impact of climate change and the workplace are likely to spark practical and legal issues. HR departments may be faced with new challenges. For instance, an employee may refuse to fly from London to Edinburgh for a business trip based on their climate beliefs. 

An interesting consideration is whether climate beliefs are capable of amounting to a philosophical belief. In Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports a tribunal held that veganism is capable of amounting to a philosophical belief for the purposes of discrimination – can the same be said for climate beliefs?

The answer is yes. In Grainger Plc and Others v Nicholson the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that Mr Nicholson’s strong belief that ‘mankind is under a moral duty to prevent climate change’ amounted to a philosophical belief and was therefore protected by what is now the Equality Act. 

Organisations would need to assess whether any provision, criteria or practice – for instance, that business meetings must be held in person, can be objectively justified. What this means is that they must consider if the company has a legitimate aim and if so, is this a proportionate means of achieving that legitimate aim? 

This may be easy to do if the work involves construction or inspection but what if the flight is just for a meeting round a table? Objectively justifying this may prove more challenging after the pandemic has taught us businesses can often achieve the same results by Zoom/Teams. 

An employee can also complain directly to one of the listed regulators. Employees should be assured that they will not be subjected to a detriment and that the disclosures will be taken seriously.

Are environmental beliefs protected under the Equality Act?

Whilst HR professionals should be aware of the risks, not everyone who has strong environmental beliefs can claim to be protected under the Equality Act. The protection of a philosophical belief is, by its very nature, fact-specific to the individual with the belief, and the tribunal will look in detail at that individual’s belief to decide whether it satisfies the tests for protection. 

If an employee believes that their employer is risking causing damage or is causing actual damage to the environment, then if this is a breach of the law, such as polluting a river. The employee will be protected by the whistleblowing legislation which prevents an employer from doing anything negative to the employee, up to and including dismissing them.

Compensation for whistleblowing dismissals is not subject to the statutory cap and so is technically unlimited. This protection will apply if an employee reasonably believes that they are making a disclosure that is in the public interest and employers should have policies that encourage employees to inform them of their concerns first to allow them to try and take corrective steps. 

However, an employee can also complain directly to one of the listed regulators. Employees should be assured that they will not be subjected to a detriment and that the disclosures will be taken seriously.

Employment laws surrounding public protests

As more climate change protests take place there is also another challenge for HR – what to do if their employees take part in public protests? 

If these are in their own time and the employer is not mentioned then there is little an employer can do. Of course, if an employee is seen taking part when pretending to be sick, this would be a disciplinary matter. 

If they are arrested, charged and convicted then, depending on the nature of the business employing them, having a criminal conviction might mean an end to their employment automatically.

Social media policies

And finally, it is important to ensure that all social media policies set out clearly that an employee cannot do or say anything which would bring their employer into disrepute or damage their reputation. 

Sometimes this might not be as obvious as simply posting an unacceptable comment on Facebook. An innocent post of an employee in their corporate uniform followed by aggressive and threatening posts on climate change means that this employee will be identified as working for the organisation. This could potentially bring the company into disrepute and policies need to reflect this. 

So, ensure to set out the company's stance on climate change in a corporate policy with clear employee guidelines on how they can get involved and what’s expected of them so, together both employee and employer can make positive changes that will strive to help combat world climate change.

Interested in this topic? Check out HR's role in tackling the climate crisis

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