HR case file: Managing conflicts involving personal beliefs

Here at FPM, over the years we've received several HR queries concerning staff members’ political and philosophical beliefs. To help, here’s some key information that can help you manage difficult situations such as these proactively.

Some practice managers can prefer to shy away from issues involving closely held political and philosophical beliefs, which are often deeply personal. They may feel uncomfortable challenging behaviour they feel is inappropriate, instead hoping things will calm down on their own.

Sometimes this works, but generally it is better to act sooner rather than later to set the expectation of professional and considerate behaviour across your GP practice.

Whether it’s an argument about politics or a dispute about what is or isn’t suitable in the workplace, it’s best to resolve issues quickly rather than risk them getting out of hand.

So, what counts as a philosophical or political belief?

Generally speaking, principles have been established in relevant employment case law and the Equality Act 2010 explanatory notes state that the criteria for determining what constitutes a "philosophical belief" for the purpose of the Act are that it must:

  • Be genuinely held
  • Be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

The employment statutory code of practice states that "a belief need not include faith or worship of a God or Gods, but must affect how a person lives their life or perceives the world". It points to humanism and atheism as examples of philosophical beliefs that are not religious beliefs. Explanatory notes to the Act confirm that beliefs such as humanism and atheism would satisfy this test, but adherence to a particular football team would not...

An employee may claim that their beliefs offer them protection under the EQA (which protects people from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief) and they may be correct. However, this does not entitle them to treat other colleagues badly - and addressing poor behaviour does not constitute discrimination.

Putting the focus on the the need for professional behaviour and the effective, efficient delivery of patient services, rather than making the discussion all about specific political or philosophical differences should hopefully defuse the tensions.

The following cases raise some interesting points...

Baggs v Dr FDA Fudge [2005] ET/1400114/05 - The British National Party (BNP) is a political party and active membership is not protected by anti-discrimination provisions. Thus, it was lawful for the employer to refuse to employ a member of the BNP because of his membership.

However, tribunals may adopt a wider approach to the definition of "philosophical belief" following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Redfearn v United Kingdom [2013] IRLR 51 ECHR, in which the court held that Mr Redfearn's right to freedom of assembly and association under the European Convention on Human Rights was violated when he was dismissed from his employment on his election as a local councillor for the BNP in Bradford.

General Municipal and Boilermakers Union v Henderson [2015] IRLR 451 EAT - "Left-wing democratic socialism is a protected belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010". In its judgment, the EAT (Employment Appeal Tribunal) rejected a suggestion that the legislation affords "less protection for a philosophical as opposed to a religious belief".

Grainger plc v Nicholson [2010] IRLR 4 EAT - The employee's asserted belief that mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change, and that we are under a moral duty to act to mitigate or avoid this, was deemed capable of being a philosophical belief .

Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd EAT/0040/17 - The EAT followed Grainger in determining whether or not a belief in the importance of copyright law qualified as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. The EAT held that the Grainger criteria had not been met because, on the particular facts, the claimant's belief was not sufficiently cohesive to form any cogent philosophical belief system.

Are you dealing with a tricky HR issue? First Practice Management members can contact us for support with their queries via the options in our FPM Core system.

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