Much noise in the press last week about the decision of the Norwich Employment Tribunal that veganism is a philosophical belief protected under The Equality Act, so the obvious question is what this all means in practice.
First, less than it looks. The decision applies to “ethical veganism” only, not a regime adopted on fashion or dietary grounds. If you forswear animal products because they make you ill or you want to lose weight or all your friends do it or you think it makes you sound more interesting, that will not count. Ethical veganism as practised by Mr Casamitjana in his claim against the League against Cruel Sports (oh, the irony) means taking the avoidance of animal exploitation very seriously. He would avoid leather clothing, touching things made from animal skin, and even travelling by vehicle where possible so as not to be party to the death of the insects splatted on the windscreen. It is hard to know at present whether these extremes are necessary pre-conditions of establishing ethical veganism but it is unlikely, just as the religious belief cases do not deny protection to those not at the fundamentalist end of their faith’s spectrum of observance. That said, if you evince no interest at all in animal exploitation beyond not actually eating them, it may be harder to show that your veganism is generally based on an ethical belief as opposed to something less impacting on your way of life.
Second, the finding was not contested. The League did not oppose it, preferring to keep its powder dry pending an argument still to come that Mr Casamitjana was dismissed for gross misconduct rather than anything connected with his veganism. In addition, the finding of one Employment Tribunal does not bind another in any case. It is therefore still open to another Tribunal or another employer to take a different view on the point, either as a matter of principle or on the detail of where the line lies between ethical veganism and fussy eating.
Third, if this is right, what does it mean for the workplace that veganism now ranks on a legal par with established religious beliefs? It gains protection against direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The BBC News online commentary raises the faintly alarmist questions of whether indirect discrimination could include requiring vegan shop assistants to handle meat, with a victimisation claim awaiting any employer which dismissed one who refused to do so. However, the answer must be just the same as for established religions which take a similar view of certain meat or alcohol products – accommodate it if you reasonably can, but if you cannot then you don’t have to.
So in practical terms, yes, you will have to ensure that there is a vegan option for any known adherents at the team dinner or at marketing events: yes, you should probably frown formally upon persistent teasing on the topic; and no, you should not try to challenge or unpick the detail of the employee’s veganism (fashion, diet or life-altering belief) in advance. Just as the line between protected disability and unprotected sickness is often very blurred, the same will be true here. No also to asking about veganism in your recruitment literature (you simply don’t want to know), but yes to keeping evidence enough of the reason for any adverse treatment of a known vegan that you can show it to be unrelated to their belief.
The risk for employers will be that many of their staff will have grown up seeing veganism as merely some form of self-indulgence, and will have seen and heard nothing to tell them that a gentle mickey-take is anything more than just a laugh. They won’t know enough to distinguish safely between picky eating and a genuine ethical belief and to adjust their language accordingly. Lines like “You can’t be a true vegan because you have leather shoes.” are about as unwise as “You can’t be a proper Christian because you don’t go to church every Sunday”, and seeking to “convert” a vegan through the strategic deployment of the definitive bacon sandwich is potentially no different from preaching religious texts to the rigorously unconverted or (outside the protected characteristic of belief), your pressing for a date with you someone who has made it quite clear that they don’t want one.
It is not difficult to see the Tribunal’s decision here as creating an opportunity for the making of complaints about things said out of habit and wholly without malice where previously there was none, and for victimisation claims when adverse treatment follows, but it does not open the door to anyone having legal rights to protection for whatever they believe in, however barmy, as some commentators have suggested.