Managing workplace conflicts

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Conflicts in the workplace can come in all shapes and sizes, some for instance may be small scale, such as passing comments about employee X’s football team beating employee Y’s football team at the weekend. Occasionally however they can be on a larger scale, undermining positive working relationships between employees.

In recent years the old adage of ‘never discuss politics or religion in the workplace’ has become more difficult for employees to avoid with the steady stream of mainstream and social media content increasingly dividing opinions.

The EU Referendum in 2016 was a prime example. The news agenda in the lead up to and after the vote meant it was hard to avoid, resulting in one of the most polarising issues in recent times. Similar polarising topics of conversation come about during general elections too – where employees’ political leanings can become workplace conversation, occasionally leading to conflicts. The ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict and war in Ukraine are also very high on the news agenda in the UK and as such will spark conversations, and possibly disagreements, in the workplace.

It is worth noting that political views are not classed as a protected characteristic. Therefore, employees cannot bring a claim under the Equality Act 2010 for discrimination based purely on political beliefs – however if those beliefs do include racial, religious or sexual connotations for example, then a claim may be possible under the Act. For instance, the Israel-Gaza conflict goes way beyond politics, with religion and race also at the heart of the issues.

The full list of protected characteristics are as follows:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

While most of the above would be relatively easy to identify if an issue was considered discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010, ‘belief’ can be slightly more ambiguous. There have been many cases over the years relating to what constitutes a philosophical belief. For example, veganism and climate change were both found to be capable of being protected beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. The ‘Grainger test’ brought this issue to the fore in terms of helping to establish a philosophical belief.

In Grainger plc v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) gave guidance on the definition of philosophical belief under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, drawn partly from human rights cases including Campbell and R (Williamson and others) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others [2005]. The EAT set out the following criteria for a philosophical belief:

  • The belief must be genuinely held. While it is not the tribunal’s function to assess the “validity” of a belief by some objective standard, evidence (including cross-examination) may be needed to establish that the belief is genuine.
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
  • It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
  • While “support of a political party” does not of itself amount to a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine, such as Socialism, Marxism or free-market Capitalism, might qualify.
  • A philosophical belief may be based on science. If Creationism (which is based on faith) is protected, Darwinism (which is based on science) “must plainly be capable of being a philosophical belief”.

The threshold for protection is low, as to qualify as a protected belief it needs to be established that the belief doesn’t have the effect of eroding or destroying the rights of others. Only the most extreme beliefs would be excluded, such as pursing totalitarianism, advocating Nazism, or espousing violence and hatred in the most extreme forms. Conversely, beliefs that are offensive, shocking, or even disturbing, would not be excluded from protection (although the manifestation of those beliefs may still be unlawful).

So, what can employers do when faced with a conflict between employees in the workplace? In short, it’s not for an employer to say who is right or wrong – employers need to allow their staff to discuss their views provided they are done in a respectful and mindful way. What is classed as respectful or disrespectful depends on the topic. Taking for example the gender-critical views in Forstater v Centre for Global Development Europe [2019], the EAT stressed that the finding that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010 does not come at a cost to or the removal of legal rights and protections from those who hold opposing gender identity beliefs – they remain equally protected. The EAT also made clear that its judgment does not ‘grant permission’ for those who hold gender critical beliefs to mis-gender with impunity.

Any conflicts in the workplace that cause a deterioration in working relationships should be investigated by someone experienced and skilled to do so. Conducting a workplace investigation will allow the employer to ascertain the facts of the conflict from those directly involved, while also likely involving other employees who have been witness to key disagreements, etc. Investigations can be very time consuming and emotionally charged for employers, especially if they know the parties involved well – so considering outsourcing any investigation can be a worthwhile route to consider. The independent status of outsourcing the investigation may also reduce the risk of litigation, while showing that the business is taking the matter seriously. It also frees up management time to focus on running the business.

While conflict in the workplace around protected characteristics can cause sizeable issues for organisations, having an open culture where employees feel free to express their views, within reason, is important. For instance, change and progress within an organisation only comes when employees are willing to challenge the current status quo, whether that be suggesting changes to a scheduled meeting time all the way through to large-scale organisational changes such as a restructuring. It is often unlikely that any suggested change will be met with wholescale positivity by employees, so in itself this is a type of conflict that needs to happen for the greater good in the workplace.

Gateley Plc is authorised and regulated by the SRA (Solicitors' Regulation Authority). Please visit the SRA website for details of the professional conduct rules which Gateley Legal must comply with.

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