Over the last few months, several of my blog entries have examined the impact of conduct or behaviour of employees which occur outside working hours. The focus of these blogs has largely centred upon social media use (or misuse if you prefer) by employees and the likely consequences of reputational damage which the employer might suffer.
The overwhelming conclusion that visitors to this site should now have is that I take the view that what employees do in their private lives can have a significant impact on work-place relations. Yes, primarily we do have rights to privacy, expression and association as enshrined in Articles 8, 10 and 11 respectively of the European Convention on Human Rights (amongst other things), but does this does not give us a blank cheque or free pass to behave badly or engage in downright dubious activities outside working hours. In other words, our Convention rights are not absolute.
I decided to write this recent blog entry on the back of a story which appeared in The Independent last month in conjunction with the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections held in Germany on 26 May 2019. It was reported that a German national – Dr Gunnar Beck – was a candidate for a far right political party in Germany called the AfD (the Alternative for Germany).
Dr Beck is currently employed as a law lecturer at SOAS, University of London and many of his colleagues and the students were outraged when they learned that he was running as an AfD candidate for one of Germany’s seats in the European Parliament. There were calls for Dr Beck to be dismissed from his post at SOAS.
As it happened, Dr Beck was one of 10 German MEPs elected for the AfD Party.
This story is a very good example of issues such as freedom of speech versus the employer’s duty to prevent discrimination and intolerance in the work-place.
What should employers do if they stand accused of being complicit in the spread of extremist views or beliefs by one of their employees? It can be a very difficult call to make.
A link to the story about Dr Beck as reported by The Independent can be found below:
Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right to dismiss employees (quite fairly) for misconduct – whether in the work-place or outside.
Furthermore, we live in times where political extremism of all shapes is much more prevalent. Again, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employers – primarily agents of the State e.g. the Police and the intelligence services (and other sensitive posts) – the right to dismiss employees on national security grounds (see Home Office v Tariq  and Kiani v The Secretary of State for the Home Department ). Such a dismissal – even where the evidence against the employee in question might be fairly tenuous – would still constitute an automatically fair dismissal.
Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 does protect an individual’s philosophical beliefs, but this does not mean that all sorts of extremist views will necessarily be tolerated (or should be tolerated) by employers.
In Redfearn v Serco t/a West Yorkshire Transport Services (2005) the employer dismissed Mr Redfearn on health and safety grounds because of his membership of the racist British National Party (BNP). Redfearn’s political affiliations might lead to violence arising in the workplace.
This was not the last word on the matter and Redfearn took his claim to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the then United Kingdom equality laws did not provide sufficient protection to individuals like him who suffered discrimination on grounds of their philosophical (political) beliefs.
In Redfearn v UK  the European Court of Human Rights stated that Redfearn had been dismissed on account of his membership of the British National Party and this was an example of unlawful discrimination. This decision effectively ensured that the protected characteristic of a person’s philosophical beliefs (now contained in the Equality Act 2010) is capable of including political beliefs.
In Grainger plc v Nicholson (2009), the Central London Employment Tribunal stated that individuals seeking the protection of the law [now contained in Section 10 of the Equality Act] must prove that the belief was “a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”.
A belief which demonstrates “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” and this belief is ultimately “worthy of respect in a democratic society, [that it] be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others”.
This would seem to rule out protection for extremist beliefs, but as Redfearn v UK  clearly established employers will have to tread carefully. Essentially, the upshot of Redfearn is that employees are entitled to hold views which a large group within society may well find abhorrent and objectionable, but nonetheless such views fall within the protected characteristic of philosophical beliefs. Turning now to the employee holding such views or beliefs, the European Court of Human Rights made it very clear that such individuals did not have a right to act on these beliefs. So, for a person such as Mr Redfearn, he undoubtedly espoused racist beliefs by virtue of his BNP membership, but critically he had never acted upon these during his employment by, for example, subjecting a person from an ethnic minority group to unlawful, less favourable treatment.
In 2018, Councillor Christopher McEleny of the Scottish National Party took legal action against his former employer, the UK Ministry of Defence for alleged discrimination and constructive dismissal by reason of his political beliefs. An Employment Tribunal Judge, Frances Eccles ruled that McEleny’s beliefs in Scottish independence should be treated as a philosophical belief in terms of Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
Whether McEleny ultimately wins his Employment Tribunal claim on what exactly motivated his ex-employer to act in the way that it did towards him remains to be seen. It is a decision or outcome in which many people are undoubtedly interested.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 June 2019