Legal New guidance on religion or belief discrimination: the key points

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Navigating the sensitive subject of religious and philosophical beliefs can be tricky, but the latest Acas guide offers employers some comfort, as Juliette Sanderson Neil reports

The UK is a notably diverse country, which is why it is crucial that employers tread carefully when dealing with candidates and employees that hold religious or philosophical beliefs. Make a wrong judgement and an organisation can find itself before an employment tribunal answering allegations of discrimination.

The new Acas guide suggests that the areas of employment where religion or belief discrimination are most likely to occur are recruitment, requests for taking annual leave, breaks and time away from work for religious reasons, and dress code.

Employers need to consider the following:

Recruitment

At the recruitment stage, the employer must be clear in explaining the job’s duties and hours of work so there are no misunderstandings. For example, it could be the case that an employer would not have to employ someone who, because of their religion or belief, refuses to shake hands in a job where the key duties were entertaining clients, networking and hosting events – but this should be flagged with the candidate as early as possible.

Also, in rare circumstances it may be lawful for a company to specify that applicants must have, or not have, a particular religion or philosophical belief. This is known as an ‘occupational requirement’ and there are some exceptions to steps in the recruitment process; for example, it may be permissible to only advertise the role in a magazine targeted at people of that particular religion or belief. Acas guidance gives the examples of headteachers at Catholic schools and imams. Occupational requirements can be difficult to prove so employers should consider seeking legal advice.

Annual leave and holidays

Where possible, any agreement regarding leave for religious holidays or for time to pray should be set out in the employment contract. If this is not possible because of, for example, varying times for religious festivals, it is best to include a general term in the contract explaining that requests for time off for religious reasons will be considered on an individual basis. Employers should note that refusing requests for leave for religious holidays and time to pray without good business reason could lead to a claim for discrimination.

Dress

Businesses should welcome concerns from employees about dress codes when their concerns are linked to their religion or belief. When drawing up the code or policy, employers should look to be flexible and reasonable where possible. If it does include appearance restrictions or requirements, these must be for good business reasons that are proportionate, appropriate and necessary. The reasoning behind a policy should be explained to staff.

Employers can be liable for their employees’ acts, and it is therefore advisable to provide training to all staff on what religion or belief discrimination is and how it can happen. Specifically, employees should be informed of their rights and responsibilities; they should be notified of the employer’s policy for preventing discrimination and receive guidance on what behaviour and actions are unacceptable.

All protected beliefs are equal, whether religious or philosophical, so one protected belief cannot override another. In discrimination cases the emphasis is on how the recipient perceives the words or actions, so suggesting something was ‘just banter’ is not a defence.

Juliette Sanderson Neil is a solicitor in the employment and HR team at Royds Withy King

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