It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world?

At the start of 2020 (when a new virus affecting people in parts of China was hardly being covered in the news) I published a blog post on the issues of philosophical belief and how employers should consider issues relating to it, in the light of two high profile cases. on veganism and gender-critical beliefs.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled today on the appeal in the gender-critical case. That case originally failed on the grounds that the claimant’s gender-critical beliefs could not count as a philosophical belief on the basis that they failed the 5th legal test, that a belief “must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others”

The EAT overturned this view, stating that a belief would only fail the 5th test if it was ‘akin to Nazism or totalitarianism’ or espousing violence and hatred ‘in the gravest of forms’; a belief that simply was ‘offensive, shocking or even disturbing to others…would not be excluded from the protection’.

This is a subject which results in much heated and vitriolic debate, particularly on social media platforms. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits of these views (or the decision itself) but to highlight to employers a key part of the judgement. The EAT was very clear and explicit that:

a. This judgment does not mean that the EAT has expressed any view on the merits of either side of the transgender debate and nothing in it should be regarded as so doing.


b. This judgment does not mean that those with gender-critical beliefs can ‘misgender’ trans persons with impunity. The Claimant, like everyone else, will continue to be subject to the prohibitions on discrimination and harassment that apply to everyone else. Whether or not conduct in a given situation does amount to harassment or discrimination within the meaning of {Equality Act] EqA will be for a tribunal to determine in a given case.


c. This judgment does not mean that trans persons do not have the protections against discrimination and harassment conferred by the EqA. They do. Although the protected characteristic of gender reassignment under s.7, EqA would be likely to apply only to a proportion of trans persons, there are other protected characteristics that could potentially be relied upon in the face of such conduct.


d. This judgment does not mean that employers and service providers will not be able to provide a safe environment for trans persons. Employers would continue to be liable (subject to any defence under s.109(4), EqA) for acts of harassment and discrimination against trans persons committed in the course of employment.

The above points are taken directly from the judgement (which you can find here if you want to read it in full) – they are also evidence that court judgements aren’t always in impenetrable legalese! They are however a very useful reminder that discrimination, bullying or harassment are something which an employer is liable for regardless of whether the alleged harasser claims they are only doing so because they have a particular religious or philosophical belief.

Woolly Bully

Workplace bullying is back in the news in the UK, so I thought it might be helpful to outline the position for small businesses.

Bullying isn’t defined in employment law, although harassment is (section 26 of the Equality Act) – harassment being ‘unwanted conduct that…violates someone’s dignity…or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for an individual (my emphasis). Although this definition of harassment relates specifically to the protected characteristics under the Act, it does form the basis for many organisations’ policies on conduct for all staff.

In practice, bullying is often considered to be harassment by someone in a position of power over the individual – such as a boss.

Bullying can take many forms, but some I’ve encountered in my working life include

  • Giving impossible targets for a subordinate  – setting someone up to fail
  • Making public derogatory comments about a more junior member of staff, either when they are present or to other team members in their absence
  • Shouting, swearing or other verbally aggressive behaviour.
  • Micromanaging an individual, picking up every slight error
  • Treating an individual differently (for example enforcing applying a strict lunchbreak when others are allowed to take as long as they like).

It’s important to remember that both the Equality Act and case law have made it clear that it is the perception of the individual, not the intention of the alleged bully that is what counts – so “I didn’t mean it” is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour, although it may be a mitigation for any penalty given (something I have discussed before).

Other excuses that won’t wash include “I just have high standards and expect everyone to conform to them” (you can have high standards without being aggressive towards your subordinates) “X is not up to the job” (performance management is about being supportive and agreeing clear targets) or “I’m just a woman operating in a man’s world, so I need to show I’m strong and decisive” (a poor culture doesn’t excuse your bad behaviour)

Of course, this doesn’t mean automatic dismissal for someone found to be bullying their subordinates – an employer is expected to make a reasonable decision considering all the circumstances of the situation. So a manager who hadn’t realised the effect their actions were having on their team members might be given a warning. It’s for you to decide. But you also need to consider the impact that not dealing with a bully will have on, not just on the individual who has raised the concern but on the rest of your workforce.

Bullying allegations can be difficult for small businesses to deal with, especially if the person accused is one of your key managers. But failing to act can lead to more negative consequences.

“OK Boomer!” Is it Harassment?

For the last few years, we’ve been inundated by articles and conference speakers talking about “Generational Differences in the workplace”. A minority of the HR profession (me included, for example in this post I wrote over 6 years ago) pointed out that this was meaningless stereotyping and used the hashtag #GenerationBlah to mock those who persisted in promoting themselves and their products on the back of ‘why Millennials need different recruitment solutions’.

Just so we are all clear, there is no reliable evidence of ‘generational differences’, as this piece of research shows.

It did seem that this fad was dying away, overtaken by other flavours of the month. But it’s burst back into life with the current prevalence of the phrase “OK Boomer” as a generalised insult for older people – so much so that it’s now even entered political debate.

Why’s this an issue for employers? Well, depending on the context, it could constitute harassment under the Equality Act.

Harassment is defined as one person (say a young employee) engaging in unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic of an another person (say an older employee) which has the effect of violating the second person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

While most employers would be aware that race, sex, disability or religious belief are protected characteristics, it’s worth remembering that age is too.

Whether someone is harassed depends on their perception, not the intention of the person making the comment (so “I only meant it as a joke” is not a defence). If an employee complains, you as an employer need to investigate it and consider what has been said, the context it was being said and any other circumstances. Failure to do so leaves your organisation potentially liable.

Remember too that it works both ways – so an older worker calling a younger one a “snowflake” could equally be harassment in similar circumstances.

With a bit of luck, the “OK Boomer” trend could soon become as dated as 1960s hippies calling older people “squares”. But until then, watch out for it in the workplace!

This piece was inspired by a US article called “Okay, Boomer, in the workplace could get you fired” by Suzanne Lucas who tweets as @RealEvilHRLady. It’s an interesting read especially if you want to compare UK and US employment laws!

Bart

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

One of the side products of this week’s decision by a group of Tory and Labour MPs to quit their parties and sit as an independent group was a somewhat heated discussion on parts of social media as to whether some of them, particularly Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, would be able to claim constructive dismissal over their alleged treatment by their party organisations.

The first thing to say is that MPs are not employees of their political parties, so the simple answer is no. But as constructive dismissal is something that worries many small employers, it’s worth clarifying what it is – and isn’t.

Constructive dismissal is behaviour by the employer that is so awful that the employee can consider that they no longer have any trust or confidence in the organisation they work for and resigns as a consequence. It can be thought of in some respects as the opposite of gross misconduct (a situation where an employee commits an act that the employer can no longer have any trust or confidence in them, e.g. stealing, assault, leaking commercial secrets to a competitor etc).

It could be a single act by an employer, such as unilaterally reducing someone’s pay or demoting them to a lower grade. It might be humiliating someone in the presence of their colleagues and subordinates (this Gordon Ramsay clip is a good example – warning contains strong language). It can also be the final straw in a series of events which allows the person to conclude they can no longer work there.

It’s also worth remembering that an employer is responsible for the behaviour of their staff. So, if an organisation ignored or failed to deal with allegations of bullying, harassment, insulting or threatening behaviour against an individual employee by their colleagues, which then led to the individual resigning, they could be deemed to have constructively dismissed the employee.

Constructive dismissal isn’t a situation where an employer makes a decision that the employee is unhappy about (I’ve been asked questions about in the past about whether making someone move from a private to a shared office could be constructive dismissal for example – it wasn’t). And remember that if the person doesn’t resign there can be no constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is also quite rare. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that it takes a lot of courage, even in a very difficult situation, to simply walk out of a job.  The second is that to win a case at a tribunal, the onus is on the employee to show that the employer’s actions were such that they were justified in resigning, rather than a normal unfair dismissal where the onus is on the employer to show that its decision was fair and reasonable.  Even though the case is – like all employment matters – decided on the balance of probability (what the judge thinks is the most credible explanation of events) rather than the criminal standard of absolute proof, it still puts an additional hurdle in the way of a successful claim.

Based solely on the reports and social media postings I have seen, had she been an employee then Ms Berger certainly would have strong grounds for a claim. Whether she would have succeeded would have been up to a tribunal judge to decide. But it’s a useful reminder to employers that trying to ‘force’ someone  (or allowing colleagues to force them) out of an organisation can have far-reaching consequences.

Gordon Ramsay

It was only a joke!

“It was only a joke”

“I didn’t mean anything by it”

“Just our normal office banter”

“Do we have to be humourless in work now?”

Over the last 12 months, the issue of harassment has come to the forefront of business, with issues such as Harvey Weinstein, and the Presidents Club. Only this week,  business leader and TV personality Lord Sugar  got into hot water for issuing a (now deleted) tweet about Senegalese footballers. His response – that it was a misguided attempt at humour –  is a common one when individuals are confronted with inappropriate comments.  In fact, the comments above are the usual reaction when a complaint is made.

If you run or manage a small business, you may be faced by an allegation of harassment and you need to take it seriously.  Dismissing claims as merely ‘banter’ can be both expensive and damaging to your business reputation, as this car dealership found out this week.  Investigate all allegations properly and – as importantly –  make it clear that inappropriate comments are not acceptable.

It doesn’t matter if the comment was not intended to be offensive, or that you can’t see anything wrong with it – in law the main concern is the perception of the individual. This doesn’t mean that every instance of an ill-judged comment is necessarily racist or sexist – case law is very clear that “it is… important not to encourage a culture of hypersensitivity or the imposition of legal liability in respect of every unfortunate phrase” – the point is that an employer must investigate a complaint properly.

And if you aren’t sure, take advice. There’s a world of difference between referring to a colleague as “The Producer” (because she is constantly telling her team that “she’ll put them in the picture”) and referring to her as “Sugar Tits”.

Humour is important in the workplace. Harassment isn’t. And remember, as I was once told by an Employment Lawyer, “Banter isn’t an excuse –  it’s an admission”. If you need more information, this piece may help you