Over the past two decades, there has been a growing interest in the impact of human rights discourse on the employment relationship and employment rights. In particular, in light of the increased opportunity, or risk, of the public exposure of an individual’s life outside of work, more attention has been drawn to the implications of employees’ private life to their place of employment.
For progressives, the interest in preserving and protecting one’s right to privacy happily overlapped, for many years, with the substantive actions that the demand for privacy protected. In other words, progressives were determined to stand by the claimants and, where relevant, criticise courts that did not do so, not only in the name of privacy, but also because we/they asserted that the claimants in question did nothing wrong to begin with. Thus, in Pay v Lancashire Probation Service, a probation officer was dismissed because of his involvement in a business venture that was connected to sado-masochistic activities. In X v Y, a gay man was cautioned and placed on the Sex Offenders Register after a policeman arrested him for engaging in sex with another man in a public toilet. In Saunders v Scottish National Camps, the employee’s homosexuality was deemed sufficient grounds for dismissal. In Crisp v Apple Retail UK Limited  ET/1500258/11 an employee was dismissed after he posted a critical appraisal of the new iPhone. And in Mathewson v RB Wilson Dental Laboratory  IRLR 512 EAT the employee was dismissed after being caught in possession of cannabis. In all those cases, the employers’ decisions were upheld by the courts, and these decisions were criticised for neglecting to respecting an employee’s right to privacy, which should be constructed in a way that would ‘protect individuals from employer domination’.
In all these cases, it would seem that the liberal, progressive intuition recoils not only from the conclusion that homosexuality and the private use of cannabis can be grounds for dismissal, but even that they should be the subject of severe moral condemnation.
I thought of these cases recently, following the aftermath of the football match between Manchester United and Manchester City, in which City fans were caught on camera racially abusing United players. The Football Association investigated, and a man was quickly arrested for racially aggravated public order. So far, so reasonable. But the story took a peculiar turn, at least for me, when it was reported that the individual was identified as working for a construction company – Kier Company – which was quick to suspend him, citing the company’s ‘zero-tolerance policy towards any racist and discriminatory behaviour’.
It is here where I became slightly uncomfortable. And perhaps it is worth saying that my discomfort is, in no way, meant to minimise the, quite frankly, terrible times we are currently facing in this country. I could not agree more with the charge that the way politicians, including the Prime Minister, address the issue of migration, fuels this hateful vitriol.
But, those politics notwithstanding, the pertinent question is: should such behaviour, which occurred, of course, outside the workplace, have employment ramifications? Two of the main arguments that favoured the claimants in earlier cases – privacy and freedom of speech – clearly apply here as well. If we (as progressives) are to be taken seriously about our principled claims, i.e. that human rights should apply in the workplace even when the employer does not hold the same progressive values, we should be ready to bite the bullet and apply the same principle when those acts are offensive, and are clearly such that we (as a society) wish did not exist.
This position, simple as it may sound, must confront several objections. First, it is argued that we want to allow employees who express racist views, and hate speech in general, to be dismissed because we want to eradicate those expressions in society. ‘Society’ does not tolerate those views in this day and age. However, this view falls into a couple of familiar traps. First, the historical one: LGBT employees, and those with questionable morals (like the adulterous employee who lost her job for that reason in Spiller v Wallis) suffered from their divergence from public norms at the time, in a way we (justifiably) scoff at now. Of course, we feel that racism and homophobia are different, and that they truly should be eradicated, but some humility should guide us to assess the historical analogies. Second, there is the utilitarian argument: do we really think that sanctioning, shaming and publicly ostracising such behaviour would facilitate its eradication? There is a strong argument to suggest that it would only lead individuals harbouring those inclinations to go underground, feel victimised and even, at times, start wearing their foul opinions as badges of pride. There are examples for all of the above. This, in other words, is the argument that has at its axis the free speech of employees, and finds its justifications in the rationales of free speech in general. And yet, the workplace is a unique micro-cosmos, where people are forced to interact on a daily basis, and where concepts such as (industrial) democracy and (managerial) prerogative are deployed by way of analogy to the relationship between citizens and governments. And yet, those are still analogies, and the different context should be acknowledged.
So if we are to contextualise further, we find that there is a more sophisticated counter-argument to the one just discussed. That is, instead of focusing on public morals and public norms, one can place the centre of gravity on the employer’s values, as expressed by Kier Co (‘zero tolerance policy towards any racist and discriminatory behaviour’). Surely we cannot bar an employer from advancing such a laudable policy in her own workplace? I was considering this issue when a case just published – Forstater v CGD Europe – generated plenty of heat.
In this case, a public policy researcher who had a consultancy agreement with a not-for-profit think tank claimed that the respondent refused to renew her contract because of comments she had made on Twitter, etc expressing her beliefs about trans issues. The tribunal’s decision was limited to the preliminary question of whether the claimant’s beliefs qualified for protection under the Equality Act 2010 section 10(2) as any religious or philosophical belief in accordance with the Grainger criteria (which, in turn, relied on the ECtHR case of Campbell and Cosans v UK, which concerned corporal punishment. In particular, the tribunal found that the claimant’s belief faltered on the fifth, and final, criterion, namely: a belief that ‘must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others’. The tribunal did not consider in this preliminary hearing any question of unfair dismissal or the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 (including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, although the latter was mentioned in brief ).
Why did the tribunal find that Forstater’s views are incompatible with human dignity and the rights of others? Probably the most problematic of those beliefs, from the tribunal’s point of view, is the claimant’s (factually incorrect) assertion that there are only two sexes in nature – men and women, along with the position that, from the claimant’s point of view, a person cannot transition from one sex to another [84-85]. The tribunal emphasised, at some length, the fact that the first position is scientifically misguided, and the second is legally mistaken. While it is true that the claimant was, in fact, mistaken on both counts, it is not clear how these mistakes affect her power to hold those beliefs.
Starting with the latter – a person is perfectly entitled to dispute any position taken by the legal system at any time. In fact, many academics have made a career, and scores of activists made history, by doing so. It is true that British law recognises a person’s right to transition and gain a Gender Recognition Certificate. The claimant recognised the legal state of affairs but held that this was a ‘legal fiction’ because a man can never truly become a woman, and vice versa . This, perhaps, is an immoral belief, but it is not undermined by the fact that it contests the current state of affairs. One can think, for example, of (radical, for the time) 18th century advocates for women’s rights who argued that a man’s ownership over a woman is ‘legal fiction’, whilst still acknowledging the practical consequences of that fiction.
And as for the former, clearly the factual veracity of a position is not a precondition for its protection, or else no religion would overcome such an obstacle. And whilst we’re analogising ‘religion’ and ‘belief’, shouldn’t we pause to consider how the fifth criterion, on which the claimant’s belief failed (in a manner that it is controversial in itself), should have barred any of the three major, monotheist religions from protection? In other words, it would seem that as a belief (as opposed to a manifestation of a belief – more on that below) – the claimant failed in her quest for protection because she grounded her positions in her understanding of feminism and the protection of women and girls. However, if she were to ground her position in the tenets of a major religion (e.g. Christianity or Judaism) – it would have been very clear that the religion itself would be covered by the scope of the Equality Act. This distinction between political (or ideological) beliefs and religious beliefs seems, indeed, arbitrary. The question would then turn to the manifestationof the belief. This, I would argue, should have been the focal point of the tribunal’s analysis here as well. Alas, no such discussion is apparent.
Indeed, while the tribunal offers a detailed account of letters and tweets by the claimant, there is not even one occasion in which the claimant’s beliefs are asserted to have targeted a colleague in the workplace. For example, she repeated the need to be polite to others, including referring to all people using the pronouns they prefer; and argued for a ‘broader national conversation about how to reconcile the welfare of people who seek treatment for gender dysphoria and the basic human rights of women and girls’. In other words, this is an occasion where the right to privacy and the right to freedom of speech should have been front and centre to the analysis. And yet, the latter is only mentioned, and its impact is not assessed; whereas the former isn’t even mentioned. Moreover, I would argue that the right to privacy (in this sense – the separation of work from life outside of work) is the more important of the two.
Thus, I believe that the court in Smith v Trafford Housing Trust was absolutely right to conclude that the employer wrongly demoted a housing manager who posted on his Facebook wall a post in opposition to gay marriage. Crucially, Briggs J focused on the fact that the post could not be attributed to the manager’s employer, that he used moderate language and never offended any employee in their interaction with them. Pace Paul Wragg, I don’t find this analysis to be ‘intellectually unsatisfying’ in the least. Quite the contrary. It would be quite problematic for an employer to ignore, in the name of free speech, hate speech of one employee towards another. Indeed, just as acts that may be classified as hate speech can and should be addressed by the state, and prosecuted accordingly (see the very recent ECtHR case of Beizaras and Levickas v Lithuania, with thanks to Virginia Mantouvalou for the reference), it would seem implausible for an employer to ignore similar speech if it happens within the workplace, leading other employees to feel unsafe, and justifiably so. But if such speech happens outside the workplace, it is the preserve of the government to act against those individuals.
Returning to the case at hand: if an employee, such a Forstater, suffers a detriment for actions that happened outside the workplace, the only conclusion that one can reach is that she is sanctioned for her beliefs, and not for the manifestation of those beliefs. To repeat, the claimant asserted that she ‘would of course respect anyone’s self-definition of their gender identity in any social and professional context’. And no examples were given that she behaved differently.Similarly, to close circle on the case of the Manchester derby – whilst it could be that the City fan does harbour racist beliefs, his employer gave no indication that those beliefs were manifested in the work environment.
Sanctioning someone for their beliefs is a dangerous road to follow. I have consistently taught my students that there are very few absolute rights, of which the ‘right to freedom of thought’ is one (a position accepted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission). An employer has a right, indeed a duty, to protect the work environment, to enhance inclusivity and tolerance, and make sure that all are felt welcome. When realising that some workers are (surprise, surprise) impacted by the relentless torrent of hateful narratives coming from the tabloid press and the highest political echelons, but do not act on them in a way that affects others in the workplace, employers should not respond by removing such workers from employment and into victimhood. The authoritarian control of employers, which John Gardner and Hugh Collins recently alluded to, is wide enough within the workplace, and should not extend to ‘thought control’. And as Collins and Virginia Mantouvalou wrote, apropos Redfearn v UK, ‘a democracy cannot eliminate obnoxious views by permitting the imposition of economic hardship through dismissal’. Instead, employers should have the courage of their convictions, opt for opening the discussion, through training and dialogue. That is where their social responsibility lies and so, I would argue, is where the law should be.
Amir Paz-Fuchs is Professor of Law and Social Justice at the University of Sussex, where he teaches Employment Law and is Director of Sussex Clinical Legal Education.
(Suggested citation: ‘A Paz-Fuchs, ‘Principles into Practice: Protecting Offensive Beliefs in the Workplace,’ UK Labour Law Blog, 12 February 2020, available at https://wordpress.com/view/uklabourlawblog.com).