Religious Discrimination Issues in the Workplace
The Equality Commission recently announced that the Fair Employment Tribunal had awarded £20,000 to a woman who was discriminated against on the grounds of ‘religious belief or political opinion’.
The case related to Ms Helen Scott, who was employed as a sales manager at a bathroom supplies firm in Belfast. Ms Scott, who was supported by the Equality Commission, was awarded the compensation payout after an incident which took place in July 2015.
It was reported that her line manager, also a Director at the company, found out that he was to attend a meeting in her place and responded by shouting, swearing and using the phrase Tiocfaidh ar la. The outburst, which took place in from of other employees, left Ms Scott feeling embarrassed and in shock.
Ms Scott, the only Catholic employee in a predominately Protestant workforce, felt that the phrase was used in a menacing manner and directed at her because of her religious background/perceived political opinion. The incident and the subsequent internal investigation resulted in Ms Scott taking sick leave.
During this period of sick leave, the company sent Ms Scott a letter for ‘sick absence without notification’ and accused her of breaking her contract; despite Ms Scott informing them that a sick line was en route.
The Tribunal found that the phrase Tiocfaidh ar la had clear sectarian significance and left Ms Scott feeling intimidated and humiliated. They concluded that ‘the ground for the offensive treatment of the claimant was her religion or political opinion’ and therefore her line manager was guilty of harassment.
They also found that the internal investigation and the treatment received during her sick leave constituted victimisation, and that Ms Scott, who resigned later that month, had suffered an unfair constructive dismissal.
The Equality Commission commented: “In this decision, the Tribunal has acknowledged the serious effects sectarian harassment can have on individuals and workplaces.” They also noted that the employer did not have a written equal opportunities policy.
MKB Law Employment Solicitor Suzanne Keenan comments: “This is a stark reminder to Employers of the importance of a relevant equal opportunities policy and appropriate training for staff and management on religious discrimination issues and procedures. Doing so can minimise the risk of such incidents as well as ensuring complaints are handled appropriately.
Failing to handle discrimination complaints correctly can lead to additional claims of Victimisation and in some cases Constructive Dismissal. This decision has been widely publicised by the media in the last few weeks and therefore falling foul of discrimination legislation can be costly, time consuming and result in negative publicity for an Employer.”
Published 7 November 2017. Sources: Equality Commission & Belfast Live.