Recent and ongoing world conflicts, such as the Israeli-Gaza conflict, have once again brought to light the complexities surrounding discussions on global events within the workplace.
The current headlines and news stories have already led to some employers taking action. For example, a Tube driver was recently suspended by Transport for London (TFL) for apparently leading an emotive chant on a tube train filled with passengers. Video footage was posted on social media which appeared to show the chant being led by the driver over the train’s speaker system. The footage came to TFL’s attention and the driver was suspended while an investigation takes place.
Employers therefore face the challenge of fostering an inclusive environment while acknowledging the diverse perspectives their employees may hold.
Here we aim to provide guidance for employers on addressing the conflict, supporting colleagues, respecting freedom of speech, and combating hate crimes within the workplace.
Understanding Diverse Perspectives
The current conflict can be a deeply divisive and emotional issue that can elicit strong opinions from employees from all backgrounds and experiences. Employers must recognise and respect the varied perspectives held by their employees, while fostering an environment that encourages open dialogue and understanding.
Freedom of Speech
One of the cornerstones of a democratic society is freedom of speech, allowing individuals to express their opinions freely. In the workplace, this principle remains vital, but it comes with the responsibility to ensure that conversations remain respectful and inclusive. As an employer, it’s good practice to encourage open dialogue, but make it clear that hate speech, discrimination, or harassment will not be tolerated.
Addressing Hate Crimes
Following global conflicts, there is often an unfortunate rise in hate crimes and discrimination. Employers must be vigilant in preventing and addressing any incidents that may arise within the workplace. Establish clear guidelines against hate speech, discrimination, or harassment, and provide mechanisms for reporting such incidents confidentially.
So what does the law say?
The Human Right Act 1998 (HRA) stipulates that individuals have the right to freedom of expression. However, there are limitations to this. Hate speech, for example, is not tolerated.
The Equality Act 2010 protects employees and workers from discriminatory treatment in connection with their religion or belief. However, this does not mean that all views expressed about world conflicts will be protected as long as the view is founded on a religious viewpoint.
Those views which have no intrinsic link to religion might still be protected. In Grainger plc v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal set out the criteria for a philosophical belief (as opposed to a religious belief) to qualify for protection – the belief must:
- Be genuinely held;
- Be a belief, not a mere opinion or viewpoint;
- Concerns a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
- Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, and not be incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
- Views expressed on the conflict might well fall within these parameters, but again the protection is not absolute.
Can an employee be dismissed?
Even where an employee cannot rely on discrimination law, they retain the right not to be unfairly dismissed. Ordinarily, employees need two years’ service to bring this claim. However, where the sole or principal reason for the dismissal is, or relates to, the employee’s political opinions or affiliations, there is no qualifying period. There is little case law guidance on how this exception works in practice, and so employers should be wary of this often-overlooked exception to the usual two-year rule.
Establish Workplace Guidelines
Craft clear and comprehensive workplace guidelines that explicitly address discussions related to sensitive topics. Define what constitutes hate speech, harassment, or discriminatory behaviour within the context of the workplace. Ensure that employees are aware of these guidelines and the consequences of violating them and make sure that HR policies such as Dignity at Work, Social Media and Bullying and Harassment are up-to-date, or are implemented if you don’t currently have one.
How else can I support my team?
Understand the daily impact
In times of conflict, employees may experience heightened stress, anxiety, and distraction. It is essential for employers to recognise the potential impact of external events on the mental and emotional well-being of their teams. Sensitivity and empathy are crucial during such times.
Open communication is key to helping employees feel supported and informed. Keep your team updated on any changes to the work environment, such as remote work arrangements or flexible schedules. Clearly communicate the company’s stance on providing a safe and inclusive space for all employees.
Encourage Dialogue, but be Mindful
While fostering open communication is important, employers should be mindful of the potential for heated discussions and differing opinions on sensitive topics. Encourage respectful dialogue, but set clear guidelines to prevent any conversations from escalating into conflicts within the workplace.
Provide Support Resources
Recognising the toll that external events can take on mental health, consider offering additional resources to support your employees. This could include access to counselling services, mental health days, or resources that promote well-being and resilience.
Discuss temporary Flexible Work Arrangements.
Given the heightened tensions, employees may face challenges in commuting or may need to attend to personal matters related to the conflict. Employers should consider implementing flexible work arrangements, such as remote work options or adjusted schedules, to accommodate their team’s needs.
Show Empathy and Solidarity:
Express empathy for the diverse perspectives within your team. Acknowledge the challenging circumstances and reinforce a sense of solidarity. Demonstrating that you understand and care about the well-being of your employees can foster a supportive work environment.
Keep a close eye
Stay informed about the evolving situation and be prepared to adapt your strategies accordingly. Periodically check in with your employees, assess their needs, and adjust your support mechanisms as needed.
Employers play a crucial role in fostering an environment that values inclusivity, understanding, and respect. By providing guidance, education, and support, employers can navigate these challenging times while maintaining a workplace culture that upholds democratic values and promotes unity.
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