Religious discrimination and disciplinary action

28 April, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

Religion in the workplace often poses a delicate situEmployment - Discrimination signation for employers and such matters are not easy to know how to manage. The difficulty for employers is distinguishing between the conduct of a person who is lawfully manifesting their belief and someone who is improperly imposing their views onto others. This balance has recently been considered in the case of Wasteney v NHS Foundation Trust.

The Facts

Ms Wasteney was a devout Christian who worked for the NHS as a line manager to among others, a Pakistani Woman referred to in judgement as EN. On numerous occasions Ms Wasteney attempted to impose her evangelic views upon her junior colleague which included sending her tickets to Christian events, laying her hands upon her during prayer and giving EN a book on Pakistani women that had converted to Christianity.

EN felt distressed and “groomed” by these actions and raised a complaint which led to Ms Wasteney receiving a written warning following disciplinary proceedings. Ms Wasteney believed her employer’s actions amounted to unlawful religious discrimination and harassment but both claims were denied by the ET and subsequently the EAT.

A distinction is drawn between disciplinary actions taken against an employee for improperly manifesting a religious belief in a way that was not consensual and in this case took advantage of a subordinate.  Ms Wasteney’s actions went beyond voluntary and consensual work exchanges about “religious discussions” and EN claimed the conduct was unwanted and as a junior employee, felt hierarchically reluctant to complain.  In dismissing her claims the EAT stated that Ms Wasteney’s actions had blurred professional boundaries and placed improper pressure on EN.  

Conclusion

Employers should continue to approach these type of situations with sensitivity. Religion is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and so misjudging the situation could bring about a discrimination claim, for which compensation is uncapped. This case has however given employers a clear guide that where an individual is promoting their religious beliefs in a workplace environment in an inappropriate and unsolicited way, which is having an adverse impact on others, then disciplinary action may be justified.  Employers must however carry out a thorough and fair investigation before coming to a decision to take disciplinary action in line with the employer’s disciplinary policy.  Regular equal opportunities training is also advisable so that staff understand what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.