Written by HR Advisor Michael Mason

Depending on your point of view, the recent decision by an Employment Judge that Veganism could (and I use the word could advisedly!) be protected under the Equality Act 2010 as a philosophical belief akin to a religion may have been something of a shock.

But what lay behind the decision?

When an Employment Tribunal considers whether a philosophical belief should be protected under the Equality Act it considers several factors.

  1. It must be a belief, not just an opinion.
  2. Relate to a ‘weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour’.
  3. It must have a ‘certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’.
  4. Worthy of respect in a democratic society.
  5. Not incompatible with human rights and dignity.

When he brought his case, Mr Casamitjana submitted to the court that he only ate vegan food (as you’d expect) but also that he bases his decision on what public transport to use on what is likely to kill fewer insects, he chooses his financial products based on vegan principles, won’t live with non-vegans, won’t use the new bank notes, won’t sit on leather sofas, has dedicated 30 years of his professional life to working for causes around animal rights, and so on!

In short, veganism for him went far beyond just a dietary choice, and amounted to a whole belief system by which he lived his life and made ethical choices. Considering this against the 5 factors set out above, it’s not difficult to see why the judge came to the conclusion that he did.

The implication here though, is that a simple dietary choice is not going to be covered. In a case last year, Vegetarianism was found not to be covered by the Equality Act because although it was a genuinely held belief, worthy of respect and so on, it did not relate to a weighty or substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. So, there is a high bar for any potential claimant to have to reach.

Employers should take heart from this, as such an all-encompassing belief in veganism is unusual, but they would be wise to be sensitive to the beliefs of their staff where they are genuinely held and inform how they live their lives.

It’s a timely reminder to revisit your policies on Equal Opportunities, Bullying and Harassment. ‘Office banter’ about veganism shouldn’t be acceptable, and could, it seems now, land you with a claim for discrimination if you fail to take reasonable steps to protect your employees.

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