Free speech at work: are all beliefs legally protected?

  • Discrimination
James Potts - Legal Services Director at Peninsula

James Potts, Legal Services Director

(Last updated )

Everyone has a right to free speech – but sometimes the line gets blurred…

In 2019, researcher Maya Forstater lost her job after posting disparaging tweets about trans people. You might assume this action was justifiable.

But in the eyes of the law, it turned out not to be the case.

After her dismissal, Forstater made a claim for discrimination against protected beliefs to a tribunal. And last year, a judge ruled that her gender-critical views were in fact protected by law.

They ruled that she had been ‘directly discriminated’ against by the company she worked for.

So, we have to ask ourselves: where is the line on freedom of speech at work? Are all beliefs legally protected?

Read on to find out…

Firstly…what is a protected belief?

UK discrimination law protects certain beliefs, like religion.

For example, an employer might punish fasting staff for underperforming. As a result, staff might accuse them of religious discrimination.

By law, a ‘belief’ is any belief that could be religious or philosophical. A belief could also be a non-belief in something, like atheism.

A belief is protected if:

  • it’s genuine
  •  it’s a belief (not an opinion or viewpoint)
  • it relates to human life and behaviour
  • it’s clear and logical
  • it’s respected in a democratic society 
  • it doesn’t conflict with the fundamental rights of others

If your worker has a belief that meets all of the above, then it may be protected under the Equality Act.

Is a belief still protected if it offends or upsets someone?

You should have a diverse workforce. So, it’s good to employ people with different backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs.

However, this can create issues if your worker has a belief that is offensive or upsetting to others. You might not agree with it yourself.

Even so, if your worker’s belief meets the criteria for being a ‘protected belief’ and they’re not imposing it on others, the law should still protect them.

What can I do if staff express offensive beliefs at work?

There are restrictions on freedom of speech in the workplace.

Your worker might express an offensive or discriminatory belief that tries to destroy someone else’s right. If this happens, you can take disciplinary action.

You can allow staff to express their views, whilst setting boundaries for non-work related topics.

Without boundaries, there’s an increased risk of:

  • damaged working relationships
  • grievances
  • discrimination claims

Trying to force an opinion or belief on others could count as harassment.

You can help prevent staff from making offensive, bullying, or harassing comments by outlining this in your code of conduct policy.

What can I do if staff express offensive beliefs outside of work?

You might be able to take action if your staff express beliefs outside of work that could:

  • harm the company’s reputation
  • harm the morals or health of others
  • harm clients or colleagues

In Maya Forstater’s case, she posted controversial opinions on social media. This could put the company’s reputation at risk.

Ultimately, if your staff’s activities outside of work put the company at risk, you may be able to take disciplinary action.

Keep the peace and respect beliefs with a watertight policy

Want to help prevent staff from crossing the line? Then, set up a robust diversity and inclusion policy.

Be clear with staff about what they can and cannot discuss at work. That way, there’s less risk of someone causing offence.

With a policy, you can respect beliefs in your workplace without fear of constant fall-outs or legal risk.

Need help setting up your policy? Or need to review your current one? Your Peninsula experts are on hand to craft watertight documents that keep you safe and successful.

And if you’re not yet a Peninsula client, get a quote to start accessing unlimited HR support today.

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