Religion and Belief in the workplace

I attend the De Montfort University Equality and Diversity Committee as the UNISON representative. One of the topics covered in the December 2011 meeting was the prospect of setting up a series of meetings so that staff could discuss their experience, as members of a faith or religion, or of no religion. If you are interested in this there is a questionaire, aiming to explore the staff experience of different religious or faith groups at DMU which is very quick to complete, and despite the expiry date having passed, not closed yet (19 Dec 2011).

An interest in the interaction of faith and the workplace fits in with the University’s mission of quality and distinctiveness, but it also follows on from issues raised by members of staff in a recent survey and changes in the law dating back to 2003. The survey raised awareness that some people of different faiths feel less well supported or more stressed than others. Other questions included:

  • What support and facilities for different religions should there be on campus?
  • How should religious or faith festivals be celebrated?
  • How can awareness of different religious and faith-based needs be raised?
  • What should be covered in a university Religion and Belief Policy?

I am interested in these questions as someone who has a faith and an interest in the protection of human rights (at one point I was secretary to an Amnesty International local group). My starting point for thinking about Religion and Belief or none is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Religion gets a number of mentions in the UDHR, most notably in Article 18:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Also relevant in the workplace is Article 23:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

I like the ‘ just and favourable conditions of work’ bit. UDHR rights are declared rather than legally protected, but we should be working towards them anyway. UK legislation is based on the European Convention on Human Rights, where UDHR Article 18 reappears as Article 9, but 23 seems to drop off the list.

UK Legislation like the Human Rights Act (1998) and Race Relations Acts are relevant here. Religious discrimination regulations give protection against discrimination on the grounds of “any religion, religious belief or philosophical belief” in a similar way to sex discrimination and race discrimination laws. The Equality Act 2006 widened this to specifically protect “lack of belief” as well.

There are interesting guides to what this means in practice by bodies like ACAS, UNISON and the Citizens’s Advice Bureau.

The UNISON guide notes that if discrimination on the grounds of belief is going to be encountered, it could be in a number of areas:

  1. Direct discrimination: treating someone or being treated less favourably than another person on the grounds of their religion or belief.
  2. Indirect discrimination: Applying a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ which disadvantages people or a particular religion or belief without a good reason.
  3. Bullying and harassment: Unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It may be that this is intentional, but it may much more subtle and insidious.
  4. Victimisation: Treating people less favourably for taking action under the regulations or assisting someone else who has taken action. For example making a formal complaint or giving evidence of discrimination.

There are a whole range of behaviours that might be disciminatory. Specific areas where this could take place include: Recruitment, Food policies; Leave; Prayer times; Dress and the way monitoring is carried out.

All this is putting issues of belief (or none) on the same footing as disability, race or sexual orientation. In the end, it is part of the aspiration to create those ‘just and favourable conditions of work’ that benefit everyone.

About Philip Adams

Senior Assistant Librarian at De Montfort University. I am interested in digital preservation and the use of data to measure a library's impact. All comments own.
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