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Political Activity in the Workplace

April 2015

The “short” General Election campaign began on March 30, once Parliament was dissolved, and leads up to polling day on May 7.

As we get closer to the election, employees will undoubtedly be talking about the big campaign issues and discussing politics in general in the workplace. Some employees may also be actively engaged in campaigning for a political party. Accordingly, Simply-Docs has created a new Political Activity in the Workplace Policy to assist employers in managing their employees’ political activity in the workplace.

What employers should watch out for.

Employees’ political beliefs have traditionally not been protected by discrimination legislation, with membership of a political party being defined as neither a “religion” nor a “belief” for the purposes of the Equality Act. However, a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled that political views constitute a "philosophical belief" under the Equality Act.

Employers must therefore be particularly careful when considering dismissing or taking disciplinary action on the basis of an employee’s political affiliations, even if they may seem offensive. Employees do not need the normal minimum qualifying service to be able to claim unfair dismissal where the reason for their dismissal is their political opinions or affiliation. Consequently, employers should be cautious in dismissing employees in these circumstances, regardless of their length of service, and should ensure that the employee's membership of a political party is not the sole reason for the dismissal. There is a difference, however, between an employee holding a political view and that view manifesting itself in campaigning in the workplace. In the latter case, the employer is better able to take action.

Political campaigning in the workplace can take many forms, from an employee passionately discussing the issues with a co-worker, to handing out leaflets and putting up posters, to organizing political meetings. An employer cannot reasonably expect to be able to ban its employees ever discussing politics in the workplace, but it is certainly reasonable for an employer to expect its workers to be able to carry out their normal duties untroubled by the more politically-minded members of the workforce.

Similarly, any sort of bullying or aggressive campaigning could certainly result in disciplinary action. If an employee is actively campaigning for an extreme political party at work, or expressing political views that create an intimidating or hostile environment for colleagues, this conduct (rather than the fact of his or her membership of the party) could amount to a fair reason for dismissal. Political expression is no defence to an allegation of discriminatory harassment and employers should not be afraid to act on any example of genuinely offensive speech. For example, if an employee has used working time to campaign on behalf of an extreme political party or expressed political views that created an uncomfortable environment for colleagues, this conduct (rather than the fact of the employee's beliefs or membership of the political party) could amount to a fair reason for dismissal. Any formal complaint of harassment should be dealt with promptly and sensitively in line with established workplace policies and procedures.

The contents of this Newsletter are for reference purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Independent legal advice should be sought in relation to any specific legal matter.

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