The employment appeal tribunal (EAT) has rejected a claim of religious harassment lodged by a Catholic employee following comments made by his line manager in reference to the Pope coupled with expletive language.
The claimant worked for The Times newspaper. In March 2010 the news team were working on a story regarding the Pope and allegations that he had protected a paedophile priest in a previous role. The story was given the working title of “the Pope.” The claimant’s line manager shouted across the newsroom for the article as the print deadline was approaching. The claimant took offence to the language used by his line manager who twice shouted “Can anybody tell me what’s happening to the f***ing Pope?”
The claimant raised a grievance to the chief night editor complaining that as a Catholic he found the comment to be offensive, unnecessary and blasphemous. The grievance was acknowledged but no detailed investigation took place.
The claimant brought a claim for religious harassment.
As this case was brought before the employment tribunal prior to the Equality Act 2010 it therefore relied upon the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 where harassment is defined as unwanted conduct on the grounds of religion or belief which had the purpose or effect of either violating another person’s dignity or creating and intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
The employment tribunal dismissed the claimants complaint in full as it found that there was no anti-Catholic sentiment at the Times and that the line manager had not intended to cause the offence. The comment was not personal and referred to a tangible piece of work rather than the Pope himself. The tribunal concluded that the comment could not reasonably have had the effect of creating a hostile, intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment as the comment was considered trivial.
The claimant appealed against this decision and the employment appeal tribunal agreed with the original findings of the employment tribunal.
The EAT stated: “in a perfect world, Mr Wilson (line manager) would not have used an expletive in a sentence about the Pope, as this may be taken as disrespectful by a pious Catholic of tender sensibilities. Nevertheless, people are not perfect and sometimes use bad language thoughtlessly. A reasonable person in the claimants position would have understood and made allowances for it”
How does this affect employers?
Harassment on the grounds of religion is now contained in the Equality Act 2010 and the definition is the same as that under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 but must now be “related to” religion rather than “on the grounds” of it.
This case demonstrates that where a grievance is raised in such circumstances that a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the comment would most likely have resolved this issue without the need for a tribunal hearing.
The employer should take into account whether the comments have the effect outlined in the act but must also consider whether it would be reasonable to have that effect or whether the employee is being particularly oversensitive.
Matters of discrimination are of great concern to employers who worry about comments that have been made or questions they can ask their employees. Employers should have policies in place to tackle workplace discrimination including matters of harassment, a zero tolerance policy to harassment should be communicated to all employees, all complaints should be fully investigated and a common sense approach to dealing with complaints should be adopted.
For further information on discrimination or harassment in the workplace, please contact our Employment team.