The Equality Act protects people against discrimination on the grounds of religion or philosophical belief. There have been a number of cases which have explored the meaning of philosophical belief. Successful cases have included the holding of a humanist belief, a belief in the higher purpose of public sector broadcasting, and a belief in the importance of tackling climate change. A belief in the importance of wearing poppies in November, and a belief in Government conspiracies being behind the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks have been held not to be protected philosophical beliefs. What would the Tribunal’s view be when an employee claimed protection for his belief in honesty?
In the recent Employment Tribunal case of Hawkins v Universal Utilities Ltd t/a Unicom (2012) Mr Hawkins, a telesales worker who was a Christian, alleged that he was told during his training to “be creative” when talking to “gatekeepers” such as secretaries and PAs, and he noted that during the training he felt that “at the end of the first day he thought he would end up in an employment tribunal”. He also made a note that the trainer had advised him “to lie”. In addition, he claimed that he had heard his colleagues lying to customers on the phone.
Mr Hawkins was dismissed. His employers said this was because he failed to reach his targets. He alleged that he was dismissed because he objected to lying to customers, which he said was against his beliefs as a Christian. Unicom said that there was no requirement or need for Mr Hawkins to lie to achieve his targets, and its Code of Conduct, which Mr Hawkins had signed, expressly forbade telesales staff to mislead customers.
The Employment Tribunal held that Mr Hawkins had failed to produce sufficient evidence that Unicom had required him to lie to potential customers as part of his role. They also pointed out that the claimant’s belief that he should not be required to lie is not unique to Christianity. They pointed out that it is a central tenet of faith in most, if not all, major religions and does not, in itself, amount to a religion. The belief is at most a manifestation of a religious belief. Mr Hawkins’ claim was therefore dismissed.
This decision may come as a relief to employers as if the case had succeeded, it could have opened the floodgates to many others. However, the case is Tribunal level only and therefore not binding law. It is also quite fact-specific and we suspect that if there was good evidence that an employer had asked an employee to lie, along with evidence of a clear religious or philosophical belief, a Tribunal might take a different view.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).
Please note that this update is not intended to be exhaustive or be a substitute for legal advice. The application of the law in this area will often depend upon the specific facts and you are advised to seek specific advice on any given scenario.