Much has been made recently of the latest guidance document released by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (not, as some media organs have suggested, the European Court of Human Rights ECHR) concerning Religion or Belief in the workplace- ‘Religion or belief in the workplace: a guide for employers following recent European Court of Human Rights judgments’. The document can be downloaded here: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/guidance-for-employers/religion-or-belief-new-guidance-february-2013/
Popular media commentary has focused on a notion that the guidance insists that Druids, Pagans Vegans and Vegetarians are now entitled to special privileges such as time off for festivals and reason to avoid having to clean out fridges that contain meat products. These ‘special privileges’ are identified by the media as loony, wrong and a step too far.
Putting aside the inaccuracy of identifying the guidance document as enabling ‘special privileges’, I feel drawn to comment on what appears to be an issue felt by the media with the concept of equality. In the wake of the Leveson enquiry, I have to wonder if any lessons have been learned by a media that clearly felt it was above the law in pursuing and presenting a story. The latest outbursts from our media, in targeting Pagans, Druids, Vegans and Vegetarians as the main thrust of their ‘outrage’ , seem to be of the opinion that a) those groups should not have equal rights in the workplace and b) are fair game for grabbing the headlines. The Leveson enquiry indicated that there were concerns with unethical behaviour in the media. These media outbursts seem to confirm that and to suggest that the media does not feel an ethical approach to presenting ‘information’ is something that should concern them. ‘All animals are equal unless you are a journalist, in which case you are more equal than others’ seems to be the attitude. How the media hopes to convince us that they should be self-regulating is beyond me.
But getting back to the document that has so animated the media- The title of the document should give the first lie to the media outrage. Religion or belief in the workplace: A Guide for employers following recent European Court of Human Rights judgements. So, this document seeks to help employers understand the implications of judgements made in the European Court of Human Rights with regard to region or belief. That would imply it isn’t intended to dictate, but to guide. You would think journalists would understand the difference between ‘dictate’ and ‘guide’, as they make a living choosing language appropriate to deliver the news of the day. You would also think that they may be able to make a distinction between the European court of human rights (especially as they had already reported on those judgements by the ECHR) in the past and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Perhaps they were confused by the reference to one organisation by another.
The document itself suggests:
This good practice guide aims to help employers understand how to comply with the Court’s judgment when recognising and managing the expression of religion or belief in the workplace. It specifically addresses the following questions:
• How will an employer know if a religion or belief is genuine?
• What kind of religion or belief requests will an employer need to consider?
• What steps should an employer take to deal with a request?
• What questions should employers ask to ensure their approach to a religion or belief request is justified?
• Do employees now have a right to promote their particular religion or belief when at work?
• Can employees refrain from work duties?
And goes on to provide some examples of requests and how employers might deal with them.
The very next paragraph of the document states:
The Equality and Human Rights Commission supports individuals’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to conditional protection of the right to express religion or belief. It seeks to promote a balanced approach to recognising and managing religion or belief issues at work and to help employers and employees find reasonable solutions, wherever possible, and avoid complex, costly and damaging litigation. It is in the interests of all parties to try to find reasonable solutions through discussion, mutual respect and, where practical, mutual accommodation.
To me, that seems to suggest that the remaining sections of the document are likely to indicate ways to ensure that employees are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and that a conditional right to express religion or belief in the workplace exists. That conditional part seems important in that the document refers to seeking to promote a ‘balanced approach to recognising and managing religion or belief issues at work and to help employers and employees find reasonable solutions wherever possible…’
Ok, so maybe it is just me completely failing to understand this document and the media have the right of the matter. I have to be honest and say I am not in the slightest bit convinced that is the case. My feeling is that this is another case of the media picking up on some news and twisting it to create sensationalism. However, in doing so, I feel they are throwing into question the entire concept of employees having rights…. Except, perhaps for journalists. ‘Four legs good. Two legs bad’ indeed!
By Mike Stygal