Employers fear breaching legislation by advocating religious beliefs
Organisations have called for greater guidance on laws protecting religion in the workplace, after the largest ever public consultation revealed “widespread confusion” on the subject.
Nearly 2,500 people responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s call for evidenceabout their experience of expressing religious and other beliefs day to day, and at work.
The consultation showed a disconnect between employees’ experience in the workplace and employers’ fears over what to support and how.
Of the 181 organisations, from the private, public, charitable and other sectors surveyed, 68 employers said they were most concerned about the implications of ‘freedom of expression’ or restrictions to this, in the workplace.
Being able to take time off for religion or belief reasons and dress were the biggest concerns for employees, while 17 per cent of managers and employers were more concerned about conscientious objection at work.
Many employees said they feared that their religion had lost its position in the workplace, and in society more generally. They said they felt pressured to keep their religion hidden at work, for fear of discrimination.
Jewish and Muslim participants said they found it hard to get time off work, even as part of their normal annual leave, for religious observance, and others said that they were excluded from meetings, or passed over for promotion due to their beliefs.
Some Christian-run businesses said they felt “in turmoil” about behaving in ways that they feared might breach the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in access to goods and services.
Employers were concerned that protection of religious observance would be seen special or privileged treatment, and called for more guidance over what was defined as a ‘belief’.
Mark Hammond, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “How the law deals with religion and other beliefs in work, in providing services and in public debate has become a matter of considerable controversy.
“What we found from the thousands of responses we received was a complex picture of different opinions and experiences.”
He said the Commission would use the evidence to examine how effective the law is in this area and develop guidance to support both employers and workers going forward.
Richard McKenna, managing director of Inclusive Employers said the key to making both managers and staff feeling comfortable at work is to create a culture of openness.
“There are real business benefits if all employees are able to be themselves at work…Employers should always strive to create inclusive cultures where all differences are valued and celebrated - where people can "bring themselves to work". This may be through programmes of events and communications that focus on both protected characteristics (such as religion or belief) and other cross cutting characteristics such as mental health or care responsibilities,” he said.
“Some people feel comfortable discussing religion and some don’t. The trick is to create an environment where it feels safe to share information without fear of ridicule or discrimination but where individuals always respond to each other in a respectful way,” he added.