Protected Characteristics

The Employment Tribunal (ET) has recently heard a case which has hit the headlines. The case involved the beliefs of a university professor. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

These are called 'protected characteristics' and the law protects people from discrimination as a result of these characteristics in many settings, including the workplace. The ET is increasingly hearing cases involving these characteristics – one person's belief is another's reason to take offence.

In the recent case, the professor had complaints made against him about, among other things, what was said to be antisemitic language used by him. These complaints were independently investigated and the conclusion was that there was no case to answer.

After this incident, the professor made a number of further statements which resulted in his employer (Bristol University) receiving a significant volume of correspondence. Much of that correspondence called for the University take urgent disciplinary action. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced and a second investigation was held which concluded that his statements were not antisemitic and the boundaries of acceptable speech had not been exceeded. However, it was concluded that the statements would have been offensive to many and the University proceeded with the disciplinary hearing and dismissed the professor for gross misconduct.

The professor brought proceedings alleging his dismissal was unfair and also that he was dismissed because of manifestations of his philosophical beliefs, which was said to amount to direct discrimination contrary to section 13 Equality Act 2010.

The ET determined that the claimant's anti-Zionist beliefs did qualify as protected beliefs pursuant to section 10 Equality Act 2010. However, his award was reduced by 50% as the ET found that found it is not appropriate for professors publicly to aim aggressive discourse at students or student groups.

The case does not give us any new law but it reminds us how complex this area of the law is – especially when balancing controversial comments against freedom of speech. Employers should ensure that their policies on such topics are regularly reviewed and any changes brought to the attention of all relevant staff.

To discuss this or any other employment matter, contact us.

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