But what can employers do when staff insist on discussing contentious topics at work? A recent Court of Appeal case gives some helpful guidance.
The Claimant, who was a Christian, was employed as a nurse responsible for assessing patients about to have surgery. She was required to ask patients about their religion as part of the assessment. Several patients complained that she then started unwanted conversations about religion with them. Her line manager discussed the complaints with her and the Claimant agreed not to start such discussions unless the patient asked to do so. However, there were further complaints of the same behaviour and the Claimant was suspended and dismissed for inappropriate behaviour, failure to follow the instruction given to her and breach of the Nursing and Midwifery Council code. She brought a claim for unfair dismissal (although, surprisingly, she did not bring a claim for religious discrimination).
Her claim was rejected by the Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal. The Court of Appeal took into account European case law on the right to freedom of religion in determining whether the dismissal was unfair. It ruled that the dismissal was not unfair. Although the European Convention on Human Rights includes the right to express religious belief as well as the right to hold a belief, it does not protect individuals who improperly try to foist their beliefs on others. The Claimant's actions fell into that category. Although the Claimant did not bring a religious discrimination claim, it's likely that such a claim would have failed for the same reasons as her unfair dismissal claim.
It's not always easy to draw a line between reasonable and improper expressions of religious belief at work. Where other staff or customers have complained (as in this case), it will often be reasonable to instruct the employee not to repeat their behaviour and to dismiss for further incidents. However, employers need to handle such situations sensitively, balancing the rights of everyone involved.