[Mythbuster] I Can’t Discipline an Employee for Political Beliefs

Lewis Hall

Lewis Hall

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07 Oct 2019

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Politics, both in and out of the workplace, is becoming more and more divisive and polarising. Today, everyone has an opinion. And, more often than not—it’s an opinion you won’t agree with.

Political arguments in the workplace can escalate, and in some cases, be cause for dismissal. But is difference of opinion between you and your employee enough to fire them?

No. However, it’s not always that simple…

Politics in the workplace

My employee is making racist comments

This might seem like a bit of a leap, but issues such as race, gender, sexuality, disability and age are becoming more politicised. As a result, there’s an increased chance of offensive comments being made.

Don’t believe there’s a link?

Islamophobic incidents rose by 375% after Boris Johnson notoriously compared Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers.

And, numerous reports show a significant increase in race and religion-based hate crimes since the Brexit referendum.

So—with that in mind. What do you do if a political debate turns sour, and the subject of race comes into play?

Well, race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. And, as for discrimination, the most likely form this will take is harassment.

Harassment is characterised as:

“Unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment for them.”

Remember, what matters here is the effect of the comments, not the intention behind them.

Some individuals will claim comments were just ‘banter’ when accused of discrimination, which may well have been their intention. However, time and time again, ‘banter’ has not held up in court.

Others will invoke ‘freedom of speech’ as a defence for their comments. UK employees are legally entitled to freedom of expression, however there are limits. In particular, the rights of other individuals. In other words, behaviour such as harassment, hate speech, or anything likely to cause alarm or distress to a colleague, client, or visitor will not be protected under freedom of speech.

Case law in this area is complex and occasionally inconsistent, which is why it’s very important to be cautious and follow procedure.

My employee belongs to an extreme political group

Extremist groups have dwindled in recent years, but certainly aren’t gone.

If it comes to light that an employee belongs to a group holding extremist views relating to race, gender, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic, you may be rightly nervous about dismissing them.

For a dismissal to be fair, you need to show there was a fair reason for it. Being a member of a mainstream political party is unlikely to be a fair reason on its own, even if the party is in opposition to your own political standing.

If their membership means they are unable to carry out their job effectively however, or has a negative impact on your company’s reputation, then a dismissal could be fair.

The most significant danger of dismissing an employee because of their political affiliation is that they might claim unfair dismissal or discrimination based on belief.

There is a precedent for this.

However, if the dismissal was in relation to their inability to perform their role, or some other legitimate reason, the dismissal is unlikely to be considered discriminatory.

Plus, if they really are a member of an extremist party, and claim discrimination on basis of ‘belief’, the following would apply:

For a belief to be a legitimate protected characteristic, it must be a belief ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society,’ which essentially rules out any belief based on prejudice, racial or otherwise.

So—is it a myth or not?

Put simply, you can’t dismiss someone for having different political beliefs than you. You also cannot dismiss someone for being a member of a political party.

However, if their behaviour—as a result of their political beliefs—gives you reasonable cause to do so, you can.

It’s always good practice to follow procedure when dismissing an employee, and should only be a last resort. However, in cases where political debate becomes hate-based, aggressive, or violent, it can be your only option.

 

About the Author

Lewis Hall

Lewis Hall is Croner's Marketing Executive, responsible for producing, sourcing, and organising content across the website. He has a background of working in the legal marketing industry and is also responsible for Croner's social media channels, so keep your eyes peeled for fresh content!

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Lewis Hall

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