Balancing Religious Views in the Workplace

Employers need to find a fine balance when dealing with religious views in the workplace between those who wish to discuss religion and those who do not share the same religious views, especially during religious festivals, according to experts at a Manchester-based employment law team.

Adele Shortman, associate solicitor at Slater Heelis LLP offered the advice following a Court of Appeal judgement last month which upheld the fair dismissal of a nurse from Darent Valley Hospital in 2016 for initiating religious discussion with patients.

Sarah Kuteh, actively encouraged patients to engage in worship and prayers which in some instances resulted in patients being distressed. Despite having been instructed by her employer not to initiate such discussions following a number of complaints, she continued to do so. She was ultimately dismissed for failing to follow this reasonable management instruction.

Adele said,

The decision required by the Court of Appeal in this case highlights the fine line between what is and isn’t religious discrimination and raises the question of when employers can ban conversations around religion, for example if distress is being caused to others then this can justify an instruction to an employee not to discuss religion with that person. However, employers need to be mindful that a blanket ban on religious discussions may well result in a claim for religious discrimination.

Employers must understand there is currently no limit to compensation for an employee who claims discrimination on the grounds of religion and employers must, therefore, adopt an extremely careful approach to the issue, especially during times such as Ramadan and other religious festivals where employees might need or wish to speak about religious matters.

Employers should be tolerant of employees discussing religious issues but must be sensitive to other employees’ religious beliefs. Clarity around when views are deemed to be ‘forced’ on other staff is key and taking specialised legal advice on this matter is essential, given the unlimited levels of potential compensation for religious discrimination.

One of the key issues in this case was that the correct procedures prior to dismissal had been followed by the hospital management – it is therefore vitally important that individual companies have such procedures in place to protect themselves.

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