Customer Service Skills Needed: Unless you’re a Stoic

October 19, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

A Lidl employee has successfully argued that a belief in Stoicism is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

What does this mean?

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from acts of discrimination by their employer, on various grounds such as age, disability, race and sexual orientation. Under the ground, or “protected characteristic”, of “religion or belief”, an employee can be discriminated against in relation to their belief in Stoicism.

In this case, a Lidl employee was dismissed for saying offensive things like “Asians were greasy” without apologising for it. He claimed that his Stoic beliefs required him to speak his mind, even if this led to hurt feelings. The tribunal judge accepted, on the evidence, that the employee held these beliefs. This means that the employee’s claim for discrimination can proceed to a full trial.

What's the big picture effect?

The list of religions or beliefs that are protected by the Equality Act 2010 has been expanding for many years. The Act does not specify them, so the courts have added to it case by case. For a new belief to become a “protected characteristic”, it must be genuinely held and concern a substantial aspect of human life. It cannot be a mere opinion. Recently, more diverse beliefs have been protected; ethical veganism, for example, was accepted as a belief in February 2020.

This judgment raises concerns for employers. First, it creates another avenue under which they can face claims for either direct or indirect discrimination. Discrimination claims offer the most generous payouts, since there is no cap to what a tribunal can award. They also let an employee claim for personal injury, including “injury to feelings”, in addition to a standard claim for lost earnings. In the least serious cases of injury to feelings, employees could receive up to £9,000, rising to £45,000 for the most serious cases.

Discrimination can be claimed by a wide range of workers, not just employees. Employees, i.e. those who work under an oral or written contract of employment, are entitled to rights under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (section 230). These rights are, therefore, not enjoyed by agency workers, the self-employed and partners of a firm, since there is no contract between them and their client. Therefore, discrimination is the only route by which these non-employee workers can bring a claim against someone they work for or with.

For instance, a religious law firm partner cannot claim unfair dismissal under section 94 of the ERA 1996. However, if ousted by other partners, they can allege, under the Equality Act 2010, that it constituted discrimination. The dismissal could count as “less favourable treatment” for a direct discrimination claim (section 9). Alternatively, company standards, which lead to them being disciplined, may place them at a “particular disadvantage” in relation to their colleagues who don’t hold their belief. This is indirect discrimination (section 19) –  i.e. what this Stoic employee is claiming.

An additional concern for  employers is the scale of what a belief in Stoicism covers. Formerly acceptable reasons for disciplining a worker – like offending a colleague – might now be discrimination if their Stoic belief was responsible for their conduct. Yet, winning a discrimination claim is not inevitable. Direct discrimination requires evidence of causation between the protected characteristic and the treatment and employers have a statutory defence to indirect discrimination. So, while the list of protected beliefs has expanded, this may not necessarily translate into more claims that are successful.

Atheism, humanism, anti-hunting(ism?) and now Stoicism – the list of protected beliefs continues to widen. But whether this is likely to translate into a higher commercial risk for HR departments is, pending the full hearing, yet to be seen.

Report written by Arun Allen

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