Am I at risk of discriminating against vegans at work?
At the present time there is no prevailing case law which suggests that veganism, in any form, qualifies as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. However, a recent case in the news has created a debate around whether those who recognise themselves as ‘ethical vegans’ should be protected from discrimination at work.
This particular case is set for an employment tribunal hearing in March 2019 and the tribunal’s decision could set an important precedent for how ethical veganism is perceived at work. Although there is no law or precedent right now that says you must consider veganism as a protected belief, this may change in the future and it would be wise to assess your current working practices to reduce the potential impact on staff.
If your organisation currently serves food to employees, by way of a staff canteen or a private catering service then you should make sure there are suitable options available for everyone. Dishes containing meat and other animal products will naturally be unsuitable for vegans, therefore it is important to ensure there is always an alternative option available for these individuals. The same notion should also apply with events arranged outside of the normal working environment that involve food, such as business meetings or work related social events, and to avoid disadvantaging vegan employees you should remain conscious of their dietary requirements.
It is important to note that ethical veganism does not simply relate to food and you should also consider how certain uniform requirements may run the risk of discrimination in the future. Asking staff to wear items such as leather shoes or belts could disproportionately impact those who are ethical vegans. In the same way certain work duties, such as the handling of items containing animal products, may also qualify as being discriminatory and you may have to make accommodations for this.
If you are unable to adapt business practices that indirectly discriminate against vegan staff you may still be protected from tribunal proceedings so long as you can objectively justify this. To do so you would need to present a valid business reason for being unable to adapt these practices which in the case of uniforms may be the need to uphold a smart and professional company image.
The Equality Act 2010 states that individuals must not suffer any harassment at the hands of colleagues or third parties as a result of a protected characteristic. Therefore, should the upcoming tribunal rule that ethical veganism is protected under the Act you should ensure provisions are in place to prevent this. Having a clear grievance reporting method is essential to these efforts and you should stress to line managers not to overlook complaints of mistreatment from vegan employees. You should also be prepared review any existing policies around discrimination and make sure they are up to date with the current requirements, including a reference to ethical veganism if necessary.
Although there is no prevailing case law to suggest ethical veganism is a recognised philosophical belief at this moment in time, this could all change in the near future. In the meantime, it would be wise to ensure essentials such as grievance procedures and workplace policies remain up to standard, whilst also being ready to make more significant alterations to businesses practices should the tribunal rule that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief.