Ethical veganism and other philosophical beliefs in the workplace: striking the balance
A recent court judgment on the unfair dismissal of an employee allegedly due to his veganism has opened up the debate about philosophical beliefs in the workplace and where employers’ responsibilities lie with regards to protected characteristics.
In a timely judgment – handed down just days after ‘Veganuary’ began – an employment tribunal found that an individual who adheres to an ‘ethical vegan’ diet and lifestyle is entitled to protection under the Equality Act 2010.
The widespread press coverage generated by the decision has once again brought the issue of philosophical beliefs to the fore.
The initial complaint was brought by Jordi Casamitjana, who claimed he’d been unfairly dismissed by the League Against Cruel Sports because of his philosophical belief in ethical veganism.
While the tribunal ruling has been seen as a positive development for those who embrace a vegan way of life on a permanent basis, it has left employers wondering what, if anything, this ruling means for their people management processes and their ethical engagement with the workforce.
Ethical veganism as a philosophical belief
With an estimated 600,000 vegans currently residing in the UK, there may be concern among employers that this decision will open the floodgates to claims. It’s unlikely, however, that businesses will need to begin any urgent drafting of ‘vegan equality policies’ to protect their workplace.
In this case, an employment tribunal agreed with Jordi Casamitjana that his belief in ‘ethical veganism’ should be protected as a form of philosophical belief. If the reasoning of the case is followed, however, the ruling would not necessarily apply to all individuals who adopt veganism.
The tribunal’s decision that ethical veganism should be protected as a form of philosophical belief is not actually a binding one and there is currently no appellate authority on this particular issue.
Vegans will only be covered by the Equality Act if they can demonstrate not only that they believe that they should not consume animal products (dietary vegans), but also that their belief fulfils the following three criteria:
- That it is a genuine belief: this does not mean that it must be backed by science or objective research, but it must be a sincere belief that is more than just a whim.
- That it concerns a weighty and substantial part of human life and behaviour. (In the Casamitjana case, evidence from academics was presented to the employment tribunal that veganism and animal ethics has been the subject of significant academic work in the field of philosophy for many decades, and that ethical veganism is a widespread and well-substantiated philosophical belief).
- That the belief is worthy of respect in a democratic society and must not conflict with the rights of others. (Interestingly, another recent employment tribunal found that a Christian doctor’s lack of belief in transgenderism and conscious objection to transgenderism were incompatible with human dignity and conflicted with the rights of others – accordingly, in this case, the doctor’s views were not afforded protection under the Equality Act).
The way in which Mr Casamitjana practices his veganism goes beyond a mere dietary choice or an opinion, but instead amounts to an ethical approach that permeates almost all aspects of his everyday life. For example, not only does Mr Casamitjana exclude animal products from his diet and his clothing, but he also uses coins and cards as payment because bank notes contain animal products. He avoids using cars and buses because they might kill insects in transit, and he chooses vegan-friendly suppliers of fuel.
It is, therefore, questionable whether another person who describes themselves as ‘vegan’ in respect of their food choices, but does not adhere to a wider lifestyle which is intended to minimise any contribution to animal suffering, would qualify for protection as someone holding a ‘philosophical belief’. Similarly, an individual who chooses to eat vegan food to lose weight or for other health reasons is unlikely to be covered.
The tribunal’s decision
The widespread press coverage generated by the decision has once again brought the issue of philosophical beliefs to the fore, and the story will likely have been followed with interest by HR professionals, especially in the context of the wider agenda around employee engagement and organisational ethics.
It's important to note, however, that the tribunal’s decision that ethical veganism should be protected as a form of philosophical belief is not actually a binding one and there is currently no appellate authority on this particular issue.
It is becoming increasingly common for employees to expect their employer to be more ethical and inclusive; not just because they are required to do so in order to comply with statutory requirements, but also because it’s ‘the right thing to do’.
Furthermore, the respondent in this case, the League Against Cruel Sports, did not contest the argument that ethical veganism is worthy of protection under the Equality Act 2010, and the overarching case will now be taken to a full hearing to establish the reasons for Mr Casamitjana's dismissal. The League Against Cruel Sports argue that Mr Casamitjana’s beliefs were not the reason for his dismissal.
Based on this and other recent cases, it’s possible that the philosophical belief provisions of the 2010 Act could become very wide in scope. For example, we’ve already seen that a belief in man-made climate change is capable of being a philosophical belief, and in 2018 a Scottish tribunal ruled that a belief in Scottish independence is capable of protection. In the light of these recent decisions, we certainly can’t rule out similar challenges in the future.
What do HR teams need to consider?
Since January 2019, larger employers have been required to report on how they engage with employees and, under section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, a director must take into account the interests of the company’s employees, the impact of the company’s operations on the community and on the environment.
Beyond statutory requirements, however, it is becoming increasingly common for employees to expect their employer to be more ethical and inclusive; not just because they are required to do so in order to comply with statutory requirements, but also because it’s ‘the right thing to do’.
Prudent employers will be putting in place mechanisms to take the temperature of employees’ views, through employee consultation forums, workforce advisory panels, or via equalities champions or networks, in order to understand diverse employee values and the ways in which those can be supported.
While the last decade has seen the exponential growth of digital communication and agile working, forward thinking employers might expect the 2020s to see increased interest in employers’ wider ethical programme as well as awareness of individual rights and protections.
It has never been more important to have clear policies about how your business handles discrimination, and employers will need to ready themselves for issues arising from conflicting protected characteristics under the Equality Act. There will inevitably be a very delicate balance to be struck.
Interested in this topic? Read Ethics in the workplace: what’s the point?
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Fraser is a solicitor in the employment team at UK law firm TLT and regularly acts for clients in both contentious and non-contentious matters. He has significant experience in advising clients on complex business immigration and right to work matters.