The great taboos. The legal and psychological ramifications of discussing politics and religion at work

February 28, 2017

“Never discuss religion or politics”. This sage advice has been around for at least a century. But in these days of Brexit and Trump, politics seems harder and harder to avoid and religion has got wrapped up in it in a way it hasn’t been – or at least not in the UK – for decades. So what happens when people’s strongly held views on these subjects spill over into work? This month, I’ve teamed up with employment law barrister, Joanne Sefton of Menzies Law, to look at both the psychological and the legal aspects of politics and religion at work.

1. What is acceptable debate?

What the psychology says….

Imagine that you and a colleague disagree about whether to take a high risk business opportunity. There is goodwill between you and you both know that you have the best interests of the organisation at heart. Even if you don’t always manage it, you’ll probably try to have an open and good-natured discussion, aiming to understand each other’s perspective.

Now imagine you disagree about Brexit or immigration or any issue on which you hold strong views which reflect your values. The chances of you having a discussion like the one above are slim. We discuss difficult issues; we debate difficult politics. Even when things stay civilised, people generally aim to prove they’re right and the other side is wrong. What the psychology tells is us that the worst possible way to get someone to change their perspective is to tell them how wrong they are.

You may not even be trying to change each other’s minds. It’s not as though you have a joint decision to make. Maybe you just see it as banter, like you might have over rival football teams. But when you insult each other’s teams, you’re actually reinforcing your shared love of the game. When you banter about politics, you emphasise your differences. Once you start calling each other “liberal elite snowflakes” and “racist little Englanders”, you erode your working relationship.

What the law says…..

In legal terms, it’s important to make a distinction between debate which somehow involves ‘protected characteristics’ and that which doesn’t. Whilst rancour over a range of things from support for rival football teams to poor personal hygiene can cause real problems in a workplace, they rarely lend themselves to legal claims. The ‘protected characteristics’ recognised in law are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, sexual orientation and – crucially in this context – religion and belief.

But what sort of ‘religion or belief’ will be protected? More esoteric examples include Wiccan witchcraft, climate change, veganism, the ‘higher purpose’ of public service broadcasting and belief in the sanctity of animal life (in the context of strong opposition to fox-hunting). All of these have either been judged to come within the scope of the regulations or used as examples in official guidance documents.

Of course, the fact that a discussion touches on a protected characteristic does not mean it is automatically discriminatory or unlawful. The fine line between a genuine exchange of views and the sort of critical interrogation which might amount to harassment is hard to draw in the abstract. That said, most of us would probably recognise it when we see it, and Employment Tribunal panels are actually pretty good at policing it.

2. What if you split into two sides?

Whether it’s a political issue like Brexit or a more tangible difference, such racial or religious divisions, it can feel very uncomfortable if your workplace starts to split into factions.

What the psychology says….

It’s not the fact that there’s difference that matters. Diversity of opinion and experience is generally good for organisations. Felix Spender, a soldier turned professional peacekeeper, has a 7-stage model of conflict, conflict-matrix_20170225which suggests that a little bit of conflict can be useful for stimulating ideas, competition and creativity. One key way to stop things escalating from constructive conflict to a cold war and beyond is to stop over-identifying with your side.

The stronger the loyalty to your in-group, the more alien the other lot become. And yet, inevitably, you will have things in common – a shared love of chess, rugby or Strictly Come Dancing; even a shared frustration with the IT system is start. You have to work with these people regardless. You can either see them as one-dimensional – “I can’t have anything in common with him; he reads the Daily Mail/Guardian/Sun” (delete according to prejudice) – or you can look for something, anything, which establishes a human connection.

What the law says…..

Employers have a broad right to impose disciplinary rules in their workplace and to expect instructions to be followed. Therefore, employers may choose to limit discussion more than the general law does, particularly in the run up to a tense event, such as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum or the Brexit referendum last June. Provided those rules don’t infringe general legal principles (for example, it would be discriminatory to try to silence only one side of the debate) employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those who breach them. Of course, the more wide-ranging the proposed ‘ban’ is, the harder it is to actually enforce.

3. What if there’s just one person on the other side?

If you’re the only UKIP-voter in an office full of right-on hipsters or vice versa, you probably either have a lot of arguments or keep very quiet.

What the psychology says….

You may have a strong desire to stand up for what you believe in, particularly if it’s based on your religious beliefs or if you’re a liberal. ostracisedLiberals often feel that saying nothing in the face of sexist, racist or homophobic remarks makes them complicit. As a bleeding heart liberal, I completely get this. But, big but, I guarantee that the main outcome from a response such as “I find that offensive. It’s sexist/ racist/homophobic” will be to reinforce the difference – and the distance – between you. That may be exactly what you want, but you still have to work with these people. And if you want to change attitudes, it’s more likely to happen if people can identify with you. Turn yourself into an ‘out group’ and they’ll become more entrenched in their own in group. Eventually you may be ostracised and the psychology tells us that ostracism is even more damaging to people than bullying.

What the law says…..

‘Odd one out’ cases are perhaps even more likely to give rise to claims of bullying and harassment than ‘faction’ cases. In this blog from 2015 I drew a comparison between a woman who brought a case in 1975 after she was dismissed for sharing her views on the ‘permissive society’ with her more strait-laced colleagues and a current case involving Christian nursery worker dismissed (unfairly) for sharing her views on the sinfulness of homosexuality. In the first case, it was the ‘loose morals’ of the young employee which set her apart from her colleagues, forty years later it was the old-fashioned conservatism which was out of kilter with the prevailing mood in the workplace, but in each case the ‘odd one out’ paid with her job for having made her controversial views known.

It is rare, however, for conflicts to become disruptive enough for an employer to feel they have no choice but to dismiss. More commonly, the ‘odd one out’ becomes a victim of bullying (or perceived bullying). Although ‘bullying’ itself is not a term with legal meaning, the danger for an employer is that an employee who is singled out may have a discrimination claim for which the employer will most likely be liable. In addition, if the employee leaves as a result of bullying treatment then they could have a potentially valuable constructive unfair dismissal claim, even if the central issue is something which does not amount to a protected belief.

4. What if you all agree?

Suppose that everyone in your hipster design agency voted Remain and hates Trump. There’s no problem then about discussing the latest Trump-outrage or UKIP gaffe round the water cooler, surely?

What the psychology says….

Whilst it’s very bonding for a group to keep reinforcing their shared values, it can lead to group-thinkremainers. As Felix’s model suggests, without any kind of difference, it’s easy for complacency to set in. If you exist in a bubble, it can be difficult to consider alternative perspectives or even to recognise that they exist. Pre-referendum, a lot of online commentary from leavers suggested that opinion polls must be skewed because every single person they had spoken to was voting out. On the other side, I notice that the kind of liberals who live by the mantra ‘Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’ seem reluctant to try on the sensible footwear of a Daily Express-reader. If you all think the same way and listen to no other perspectives, how can you be sure that you understand the views and needs of your customers, suppliers or service users?

What the law says…..

Whilst there is nothing against the law about everyone getting on, the problems that Caroline mentions can, when taken to extremes, lead to legal issues. Organisations which are perceived to be ‘closed’ – whether in terms of race, religion or social outlook can sometimes be targeted by applicants seeking a platform to make a claim, either for monetary gain, or to pursue their own agenda.

The other problem with a monolithic group culture is that it can lead to increasingly extreme comments being tolerated (inevitably in the name of ‘banter’). When looked at in the cold light of an Employment Tribunal that round-robin email saying describing all Trump voters in vitriolic and ‘colourful’ terms could become a serious embarrassment.

If you’ve found the employment law aspect of this blog interesting, you can find more of Joanne’s blogs here and be able to register to receive them.

Photo credits

Scolding: Doug Tammany

Ostracised: Astrid Westvang 

Remainers: mazz_5


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