An Employment Tribunal Judge has ruled that ethical veganism amounts to a ‘philosophical belief’ and is, therefore, protected by law. The Tribunal’s decision, whilst not surprising, goes against the Government’s stated opinion that veganism should not be a philosophical belief capable of protection. The Government had disagreed with the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s view, following their Code of Practice to assist employees and employers navigate the Equality Act 2010, that veganism was likely to be protected.
Peter Stanway, our BackupHR™ legal expert comments:
To be classed as a philosophical belief, the Employment Appeal Tribunal has previously ruled that the belief must:
- be genuinely held
- not just be an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, and not incompatible with human dignity, or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others
This ruling has received substantial publicity. Employers may be concerned that this could open the floodgates for all sorts of beliefs to receive such protection at work.
This is one of several recent judgements on what might constitute a philosophical belief capable of protection. Indeed, the same Judge recently held that vegetarianism does not qualify. He accepted that the Claimant was a vegetarian and had a genuine belief in vegetarianism, and animal welfare. However, vegetarianism is not capable of amounting to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act. Opinion based on logic isn’t enough.
“The belief must have a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs. Clearly, having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour is not enough in itself for it to have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief.”
Ethical vegans oppose the use of animals by humans for any purpose. This Claimant’s belief extended beyond eating a plant-based diet. For example, he avoids catching buses due to the potential for the vehicle to crash into insects or birds. It could still be argued that being a dietary vegan or vegetarian is pretty ethical, so it too may end up being classed as having protected characteristics.
This decision is unlikely to open the floodgates to claims from the estimated 600,000 vegans currently living in the UK. However, this case demonstrates that the situation faced by employers can be highly problematic, given how difficult it is to identify what might qualify as a protected philosophical belief, and what does not. A Scottish Tribunal held that a belief in Scottish independence amounts to a philosophical belief. On the other hand, someone lost because of their belief that gender is fixed at birth and cannot be changed. Their beliefs on transgenderism were incompatible with the rights of others.
Employers may want to consider what steps they can take to provide more support to vegans, or avoid ‘discriminating’. Issues may arise in relation to catering choices, uniform composition or travel, or how to handle ‘banter’ from colleagues around veganism. They should approach these issues with similar seriousness to an employee raising the same issues based on a religious belief.
We will not be recommending that employers should now be urgently drafting ‘vegan equality policies’, but there are some ‘takeaways’ from this case.
- Ensure that your business is welcoming and inclusive of vegan and other beliefs, creating a culture of understanding and respect.
- Deal firmly with any incidents of harassment.
- Make reasonable efforts to accommodate the ethical beliefs of all employees.
- Be sensitive to dietary issues, especially those on religious, philosophical or health grounds.
- Ensure that when you dismiss anyone, even employees with less than two years, that you provide clear reasons unrelated to being a vegan.
The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action make sure that you know what you are doing, or call us for a free initial chat on 01480 677980.