Employers must clamp down on staff conflicts or risk claims, say employment lawyers

UK businesses risk facing claims for failing to deal with workplace bullying if they do not deal effectively with staff conflicts resulting from the Brexit vote – says employment lawyers at Irwin Mitchell.

The EU referendum result last Friday has not only led to considerable political uncertainty within the UK, but also an outpouring of euphoria from those who voted to leave the EU and anger and frustration from those who did not.

Employment lawyers at Irwin Mitchell have highlighted the dangers of what can happen if these polarised views spill out into the workplace.

Glenn Hayes, an employment partner at Irwin Mitchell, said:

“Employees are entitled to hold different opinions to their employers and others with whom they work with, but this does not mean that they have an absolute right to say what they like.

“Most employers have workplace policies and rules which spell out the behavioural standards staff must meet and these will usually require staff to treat each other with dignity and respect. Ridiculing them for their ‘mistaken’ beliefs, therefore, will cause problems and may amount to bullying and in extreme circumstances, employment tribunal claims

“Under UK law, an individual can complain of bullying or harassment if comments are ‘unwanted’ and create a hostile or intimidating working environment. It is not a defence to say that the comments were ‘banter’ or that the victim is too sensitive or that the comments were not directed at them.

“Employers have a duty to dampen down any conflict in their workplace about the implications of Brexit and should remind staff to respect each other’s opinions and not allow their political opinions to affect their work or the relationships they have with their colleagues.

“A belief in the EU, or alternatively the sovereignty of the UK, might be capable of being a ‘philosophical belief’ protected under UK discrimination law.  Whilst a ‘belief’ has to be more than an opinion, employees who believe that they have been bullied for holding a contrary view on Brexit to the majority of their colleagues, may try and bring claims based on their beliefs if no action is taken to protect them. It may come as a surprise to some businesses but previous cases have found that a belief in climate change, anti-fox hunting and left wing democratic socialist beliefs have all been held to be capable of protection.

Glenn adds: “Furthermore, if employers fail to protect their employees, claims could be potentially brought for constructive dismissal, if such bullying (or the failure to stop it) leads to a fundamental breach of contract.”

Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.