Ethical Veganism and the Scope of Protected Characteristics
As an employer making decisions about your business which could impact on your employees, you need to consider whether what you are proposing could cause detriment to a particular group of employees with a characteristic that is protected by the Equality Act 2010.
This can be a tricky exercise, and with every new Equality Act case brought before an Employment Tribunal the scope of the “protected characteristics” is being challenged, and sometimes widened.
Religion and belief is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act. But what does this encompass?
Sometimes it is clear that an employee observes a religion or belief but sometimes this is not so clear. Is veganism a belief?
This very question was recently determined by an Employment Tribunal at a preliminary hearing. It held, in that case, that ethical veganism is a belief capable of being protected by the Equality Act. The matter of whether the dismissal was fair is yet to be determined.
In this case the Claimant was an “ethical vegan” (i.e. seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation) and was dismissed following raising concerns with managers and then to colleagues about his employer’s (the League Against Cruel Sports) pension investments. The Claimant believed that the Respondent’s pension investments in companies that were involved in animal testing were contrary to the organisations, and his own, ethics.
Each case of this type will turn on its facts, and in this case the issue of whether or not the Claimant’s veganism was a “belief” was not contested by the Respondents. The issue in this case was whether the belief satisfied the principles set out in the case of Granger Plc v Nicholson. The principles are also found in the Equality and Human Rights Commission code of Practice on Employment 2011. Broadly, that:
a) the belief must be genuinely held;
b) it must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint;
c) it must be related to ‘a weighty and substantial’ aspect of human life;
d) it must contain a certain level of seriousness and importance; and
e) it must be worthy of respect, not conflict with human dignity and not conflict with others fundamental rights.
The Tribunal found that all of these principles were satisfied by the Claimant’s ethical veganism and thus it was a protected characteristic. However, it must be noted that just avoiding foodstuffs containing animal products would not be enough to satisfy the above principles.
The Claimant in this case went to great lengths to practice his belief, such as avoiding even touching leather straps and not associating with non-vegans. Because of this, it should not be assumed that all lifestyle choices made by your employees can count as a protected characteristic. However, this case demonstrates how some protected characteristics can be not so obvious. Employers really need to think outside the box when considering whether an employee may have a protected characteristic.