On the back of a recent employment tribunal decision which said that ethical veganism can be a philosophical belief that is protected by equality law against discrimination, the Vegan Society has published guidance for employers on how they can accommodate vegans in their workplace.
The advice ranges from designating separate fridge shelves and making non-dairy milk options available, to providing vegan-friendly equipment (eg non-leather phone cases) and cracking down on office jokes.
In light of this, employers might be wondering what their obligations are and whether they need to adjust their working practices to accommodate vegans in their workplace.
What does the law say?
The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from being discriminated against or harassed because of certain ‘protected characteristics’, which include their age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership status, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
A ‘belief’ includes ‘any religious or philosophical belief’, but that does not mean that all religions or beliefs will be covered. Amongst other criteria, it must be a belief that attains a certain level of seriousness and importance and is worthy of respect in a democratic society.
So, is veganism a protected belief?
The recent employment tribunal decision said that ethical veganism is capable of amounting to a ‘philosophical belief’, bringing it within the scope of the Equality Act. But tribunal decisions are not binding law, which means that, for now at least, any case brought in the future would be decided on its own merits.
It’s important to remember that ethical veganism doesn’t simply refer to an individual who follows a plant-based diet. It refers to a way of life whereby individuals also try to avoid contact with all products derived from any form of animal exploitation or cruelty (e.g. leather or products tested on animals), and it impacts the choices they make about their daily lives, including their jobs and hobbies.
In the recent employment tribunal decision, it was the strength of the claimant’s ethical veganism and the impact that it has on his day to day life that led to the tribunal finding that it amounted to a ‘philosophical belief’. For example, he would avoid taking public transport for short journeys to avoid accidental clashes with insects and birds.
On the other hand, another recent employment tribunal decision found that vegetarianism did not meet the criteria for protection as a ‘philosophical belief’, and it’s unclear whether ‘veganism’ as opposed to ‘ethical veganism’ would either.
What steps should employers take now?
Rather than viewing the recent tribunal decision as creating new law, employers should view it as an indication of the way in which ethical veganism may be treated by the courts. Allegations of workplace discrimination are serious, and employers must ensure that their staff are not treated less favourably, either directly or indirectly, because of a protected belief.
In light of this, employers should consider what steps might be appropriate for them to take in order to accommodate vegans in their workplace. As a first step, they should aim to demonstrate greater awareness of different beliefs within their organisation by reviewing how their policies and procedures may affect all members of staff (even if it’s not clear whether they’d be protected under the Equality Act).
Consulting with staff before introducing new policies and procedures may be one way to alleviate any unintended consequences. This does not mean to say that employers must accommodate every demand from their staff, but some steps are likely to be considered appropriate, such as ensuring different dietary needs are catered for (eg in your staff canteen if you have one, or at work social events). Being alive to the issues will help businesses put in place proportionate measures to prevent any negative impacts before they occur.
The content in this article is up-to-date at the date of publishing. The information provided is for information purposes only, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. ©Sparqa Limited 2020. All rights reserved.