This is a matter which is quite close to me being the father of two sons who have recently become vegans.  And I have to admit that - being the person that does a lot of the cooking - my response was not a positive one.  Let me be clear, this was not an anti-vegan stance.  It was simply one of self interest.  I didn't want to cook separate meals.  

But what if my reaction was transposed into the workplace?  Would this have been a problem?  Well, in all likelihood, yes.

When we look at the definition of religion and belief discrimination it states that (section 4, Equality Act 2010):

  • "Belief" means any religious or philosophical belief …..

The case of Grainger plc and others v Nicholson provided us with some guidance on the statute.  It stated that:

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint;
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; 
  • It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society;
  • It must "have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief".

So, what does this actually mean?  Where is the line drawn when we are assessing whether a belief is a fully fledged protected characteristic.  It leaves us with a high degree of uncertainty.  Being a vegan for some people could be a way of life with an underpinning belief system relating to the protection of animals and the environment.  For another, it may simply be that they would like to eat healthier.  One is almost certainly protected by the legislation, the other is not.

What steps do I need to take as an employer?

You need to limit the exposure of your business to (particularly) claims of harassment as a consequence of office or shop floor 'banter'.  I say "limit" intentionally as I trust that you are aware of the limitations that you come across when trying to control how and what employees say to one another.

To limit the risk it is important that you:

  • undertake regular bullying and harassment training for all, but with an added emphasis on managers and supervisors who have the added responsibility to intervene and act when they see harassment occurring;
  • update your training and policies to reflect the new areas of discrimination such as veganism;
  • make employees aware of the consequences of breaches of your policy;
  • a policy of equality must be led from the very top of the organisation.  Directors, managers and supervisors must set the standards.  Failures by senior staff will foster a culture of harassment.

Times they are a changin'.  Don't be caught out.