Back to basics: Religion or belief discrimination explained

We continue our blog series on identifying and understanding different types of workplace discrimination by looking at religion or belief discrimination. And if you’ve missed previous back to basics blogs, you’ll find links at the end of this article to check them out.

What is religion or belief discrimination?

Under the Equality Act 2010 it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably or unfairly because of their religion or belief – or indeed their lack of religion or belief. Similarly to sex, age, race and sexuality, religion or belief is identified as a protected characteristic.

What is defined as a ‘belief’?

This relates to both religious and philosophical belief. Philosophical belief is a little trickier to define. It is not an opinion or point of view; rather it is identified under the Equality Act as genuinely held, clear, logical, convincing and a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, worthy of respect in democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others – I said this was tricky!

Humanism, atheism and agnosticism are examples of ‘beliefs’, but the key takeaway point here is we’re talking about a belief that is “not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others”.

It is also important to note that all protected beliefs are equal; no one belief carries more weight or influence over the other, nor does having no belief.

What form does religion or belief discrimination take in the workplace?

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination can occur at any stage of employment – from refusal to make an offer of employment at the recruitment stage, to inequality in pay and benefits compared to other colleagues, reduced or lack of opportunities for training and promotion, changes in employment terms or responsibilities of role, to redundancy and dismissal.

There are three types of direct discrimination to be aware of:

  1. When an employee is unfairly treated by their employer due to their religion or belief, or lack of religion or belief
  2. When an employee is treated unfairly because of their perceived religion or belief
  3. When an employee is treated unfairly because of the religion or belief of a friend or family member – known as discrimination by association

 

Indirect discrimination

This often involves the introduction of or amendment to workplace policies and procedures that unfairly disadvantages an employee of a religion or belief. For example, the requirement for all staff to work one weekend a month may conflict with a person’s religious beliefs.

Harassment

Harassment relates to inappropriate or unwanted conduct that has the purpose OR the effect of violating a person’s dignity or that creates a humiliating, hostile, degrading, offensive or intimidating working environment. A harassment claim can be brought by the person receiving the unwanted behaviour or by someone who witnesses and is negatively affected by the behaviour.

Another important note here: a harassment claim can be brought against someone of a particular religion or belief who attempts to impose or force their views on others.

So how do we prevent religion or belief discrimination?

Talk to each other.

As I write this blog, the festive season is in full swing and organisations debate whether or not to deck the office halls and whether to even utter the C-word – Christmas – for fear of offence or reprisal. Organisations need to understand, appreciate and be sensitive to the beliefs of their employees, but most importantly talk to your people, cultivate that culture of openness and respect.

Indeed, the very assumption of offence due to someone’s religion or beliefs can itself be offensive and may inadvertently lead to further isolation and marginalisation.

Concerned by the reception of a dress code, policies relating to leave/holiday, working patterns and flexible working, or whether to mark certain religious holidays or traditional celebrations? Ask your people what they think.

This is a two-way dialogue that involves as much of an appreciation of the individual and their beliefs by the organisation as an appreciation of business requirements and responsibilities from the employee, so it’s a conversation that needn’t be shied away from.

It’s time to start talking. And if you need support in starting these conversations, start by talking to us here at Tell Jane.

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