The recent, controversial, coverage of Marks & Spencer’s policy of allowing members of staff to refuse to serve customers buying pork or alcohol has worried many employers.
Most employers have a clear understanding of their legal obligation not to discriminate unfairly when recruiting staff. However, their understanding of equality legislation becomes more hazy when faced with the possibility that, by applying a policy or practice, e.g. checkout staff handling all types of food and drink, it is possible that they are indirectly discriminating against employees whose religion or belief conflict with that procedure or policy.
Avoiding Indirect Employee Discrimination
So how can employers embrace diversity, respect the varying beliefs of employees, and focus on meeting the ever changing demands of the business and its customers?
Swansea-based HR Specialists, hchr, have come up with the following guidelines for local businesses facing these difficult decisions.
Whenever you receive a request from an employee to vary their working terms and conditions, or a challenge to any policy or procedure, you should:-
• Keep an open mind
• Listen, without making any decision.
• Gather the facts. What is the objection? Why? And what is being proposed?
• Think creatively and constructively.
• Is the request workable? How does it affect the business and other staff?
• Is there a legitimate business case to refuse the request?
• Meet to discuss the issues, and allow the employee to be accompanied by a colleague or a trade union official. Present your business case and provide an option to appeal your decision.
• Always seek advice from an HR or employment law advisor about the legitimacy of the business case for refusal.
M&S clearly listened to, and demonstrated respect for, the individual’s belief and found that they were able to design a working method that was suitable for both the individual and the business. Each business situation is different and every case must be weighed up on its own merits. Other employers do not have to come to the same conclusion as M&S. It is complex, but providing a fair procedure is followed common sense should prevail.