< Back to Need to Know - Issue 4 2016

Disciplinary for imposing Christian views on a Muslim employee was not discriminatory

Fri 03 Jun 2016

Religious discrimination cases are inherently tricky to deal with, especially where the religious beliefs of two employees conflict. If a conflict arises between two employees based on their respective religious beliefs, and the employer decides to take action, it should do so on the basis of any misconduct on the part of one or other employee, rather than to their religious belief itself. The employer should also ensure that any steps taken are reasonable and proportionate. The recent case of Wasteney v East London NHS Trust, which has attracted national media coverage, demonstrates how this can work in practice.

This case concerned a Christian NHS manager, Ms Wasteney (the Claimant), and a Muslim junior member of staff. Ms Wasteney described herself as a “born-again Christian”. She started working at the Trust in 2007, and in 2011 launched an initiative in which volunteers from her church provided religious services at the mental health services facility at which she was a Head. Concerns regarding improper pressure on staff and service users led the Trust to suspend the religious services. Ms Wasteney was informally advised on the need to maintain boundaries between her spiritual and professional life.

In 2013, a complaint was made against Ms Wasteney by a junior Occupational Therapist, of Muslim faith. She complained that Ms Wasteney invited her to church events; sent her religious DVDs; told her that she needed to let Jesus into her life; gave her a book about a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity; and prayed over her and laid hands on her. The junior member of staff felt she was being “groomed” and was uncomfortable with the pressure Ms Wasteney was putting on her. The Trust investigated, and found the allegations to be true. The Trust commenced disciplinary proceedings against Ms Wasteney on the basis of failure to maintain professional boundaries. As a result, she was issued with a final written warning. On appeal, this was downgraded to a first written warning with a recommendation of training.

Ms Wasteney brought claims in the Employment Tribunal (“the ET”) for direct discrimination and harassment on the ground of religion or belief. The ET rejected her claims. It found that the disciplinary action taken against her, whilst in the context of religious acts, was purely based on her conduct. She blurred professional boundaries and placed improper pressure on her junior colleague. The sanction given to Ms Wasteney was also reasonable and proportionate. The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed with this finding.

The lesson from this case is that a clear line must be drawn between the employee’s religious beliefs and their conduct, e.g. inappropriate remarks made to employees of another faith. If the employer would take the same action against the employee regardless of their religious belief, then the employer should be on safe ground. However, it is always worth seeking legal advice when discrimination issues arise as uncapped compensation is payable to employees if discrimination is found, and this can be substantial.

For more information on this article please contact the Employment Team.       
 

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