Ethical veganism is now a protected belief – but why does it matter?
Jack Harrington

An employment tribunal ruled last week that ethical veganism is protected under the Equality Act in the same way as a religious belief, but what does that mean for employers?

In purely legal terms it means it is unlawful for an employer to treat a worker less favourably, put them at a particular disadvantage or harass them because of their vegan beliefs.

In practice, it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which this might become an issue – most employers would protest that they didn’t treat vegan employees any differently before this decision and they aren’t about to start now!

Let’s take a closer look however….

  • An employee is constantly teased by her manager about the content of her vegan lunch box:  “You wouldn’t catch me eating that muck!” “That can’t be good for you? “No wonder you always look so anaemic!”  Under the Equality Act, harassment includes unwanted conduct which has the effect of creating a hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for someone.  Employers will be liable for unlawful harassment unless they have already taken reasonable steps to prevent it from happening.  
  • Workers are required to wear a uniform which includes a woollen fleece jacket and a vegan worker is dismissed because he refuses to wear an animal product.  Under the Equality Act an employer indirectly discriminates against a worker if it imposes a universal practice or rule which puts the vegan worker, and all vegans, at a particular disadvantage and the practice or rule cannot be justified as necessary for operational or other business reasons.
  • A steak restaurant chain dismisses a vegan accounts employee who posts a blog on social media about the evils of eating meat and identifies herself as an employee of the restaurant.

With veganism on the rise, it is clear there are circumstances in which last week’s tribunal decision could have an impact on your business.

What can (should) employers be doing?

  • Update equality and diversity policies to include ethical veganism
  • Undertake regular training on equality and diversity and anti harassment
  • Consider providing alternative milk products in break out areas and meeting rooms
  • Take legal advice if you receive a complaint relating to vegan belief
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