Religious Diversity

This is the fifth in a series of articles produced for the Future of Work Hub by Lewis Silkin LLP looking at religious diversity. 

Diversity gives organisations a competitive advantage, a proposition which is as true for religious diversity as for other areas. At the same time, the need for sensitivity towards religious and cultural differences in the workplace is essential. As emerging markets become more economically influential, such sensitivity will become increasingly important in day-to-day business life. For example, rapidly-growing Asia is a region generally acknowledged to have the highest levels of religious diversity in the world. With greater diversity comes an increased risk of conflict, whether between religions or between religious workers and other groups. 

New generations entering employment are placing a premium on work-life integration and living our their personal values in the workplace, which will inevitably bring the issue of religious diversity to the fore. The facility to devote time to religious observance and freedom to express aspects of personal identity at work may become a significant factor in recruiting and retaining talent. 

Cultural awareness will be essential in the global marketplace of the future. Managers need to develop multicultural social and communication skills, while initiatives to support religious diversity awareness and inclusion will benefit the entire workforce. This is particularly important in a business environment in which same-time communication and use of social media are the norm. As highlighted in our previous article, with instant communication it can be easy for comments to be made “off the cuff” that are ill-advised or could be taken the wrong way.

A person who is subjected to unwanted conduct related to religion or belief may have a claim for harassment, covering both single acts and more general behaviour that creates an inappropriate environment. A claim of this type could be brought against both the individual perpetrator and the employer. In order to defend successfully such a claim, the employer would need to show that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from discriminating against or harassing others.

Alongside these developments, there have been several cases dealing with the clash between religious beliefs and the rights of other protected groups, particularly relating to sexual orientation. In general terms, the approach of tribunals and courts in these cases has been to confirm that religious beliefs cannot be used to justify discrimination against others, even where those beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held. Where, for example, a religious employee expresses homophobic views in the workplace, this can create immediate practical problems. The key to resolving such sensitive issues is to have a policy emphasising the need for mutual respect, making it clear that the expression of any views that discriminate against others (whether or not motivated by religious belief) will not be tolerated.

It is important to remember that the legal protection against “religion or belief” discrimination covers philosophical as well as religious beliefs. Courts have ruled that a broad range of beliefs can potentially qualify for protection, including belief in climate change, opposition to fox hunting and even a strong commitment to the ethos of public sector broadcasting. While this does not mean that any strongly held belief is capable of being covered by discrimination law, clearly there are both religious and philosophical beliefs which may appear rather obscure or esoteric and yet still attract protection. The European Court of Human Rights has had an influence in this area, ruling in 2012 that the UK needed to introduce protection against dismissal on grounds of political opinion or affiliation (in this case, membership of the British National Party). This led directly to unfair dismissal law being amended to provide that the normal two-year qualifying period does not apply in such cases.

In a globalised and technologically advanced business world, working hours and associated work demands are increasing, which can create difficulties for employees with requirements related to religious observance. An unwillingness to accommodate reasonable requests for time off could trigger complaints of direct or indirect religious discrimination. Various practical arrangements at work give rise to concerns or grievances - for example, the availability of prayer facilities, social work events based around alcohol, days off for religious festivals, dress codes and canteen facilities.

As mentioned in our third article, as flexible working practices become increasingly widespread, careful thought is needed on how to decide which flexible working requests are accepted and which are refused. Given the increasing variety of religious diversity in the workplace, HR professionals will need to be increasingly sophisticated in the way they handle issues of this type.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

The make-up of the UK workforce will inevitably be heavily influenced by immigration policy, which under the present government is likely to have the basic aim of reducing migration to the UK. It is probable that the government will continue to narrow eligibility to enter the UK as a skilled worker, while the referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU will mean limitations on the benefits offered to EU migrants and restrictions on the ability of EU citizens to migrate to the UK.  This may mean that there is a drop in representation in some religions within the workforce.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers and refugees will continue to seek entry to the UK. Government policy may change in future to better serve those in genuine need of protection, while tightening restrictions against migrants seeking to enter for economic reasons. The former group is likely to grow considerably as a result of political conflict and climate change, meaning the UK will probably have to accept higher numbers. Ultimately, these developments will contribute to an ever-increasing religious diversity in society and, in turn, the workplace. Some commentators also believe that ideological tensions within workforces are likely to increase as political faith groups become more prolific – an obvious recent example being the rise of radical political Islam.

Continuing with the theme of the UK’s relationship with the EU, it is significant that religion and belief discrimination was only introduced in this country in 2003 to comply with the EU Equal Treatment Framework Directive. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, it may theoretically be possible to repeal this legislation altogether.  As highlighted in Section 1, that is an extremely unlikely scenario given the widely acknowledged importance of such rights within society and recent government pledges to “protect and expand” workers’ rights (among other factors).

As mentioned above, in addition to EU law, the European Convention on Human Rights has also been influential in the development of UK law on religion and belief discrimination. The government has, however, previously expressed an intention to repeal the UK Human Rights Act which could mean the courts would no longer be bound to take account of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.  This could potentially limit the further development of legal protection for religious, philosophical and political beliefs.

CHECKLIST

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Watch out for the next article in the series will look at remote working.  To read the introduction to the report which gives an overview of the impact of three megatrends - globalisation, technology and changing demographics - on the world of work, see the introduction to the series.

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