Workplace Guides: Religion and Sexual Orientation

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"So I think over the last 20 or 30 years, race relations legislation has had some very substantial benefits and I would think that that ought to be true for gay and lesbian people too." Sam, 42, Christian

During the last fifty years, parliament has introduced significant legislation to help stop discrimination. New equalities legislation has often caused a degree of consternation amongst employers and service providers, but gradually, the legislation has helped achieve a cultural change. Twenty years ago, employers were concerned about implementing some aspects of equality relating to gender. Today, these would not cause any concern at all.

Twenty years ago it was quite paternalistic. Senior folks would not offer the job to an individual because they felt that the environment was unsuitable. As a woman I know that one. Siobhan, private sector multinational company

But I think the days when you wouldn't put women branch managers into particular locations hopefully are well behind us, because we were in that place at one point, many years ago. Ann, retail banking

Equality and diversity legislation continues to emphasise the importance of treating people fairly and without discrimination. There is also an increasing emphasis on 'good relations'. Enabling different communities to live, work and socialise together is considered key to eradicating discrimination.

As Muslims we live in a community that isn't just Muslim, it's got other people in it... My boss: he's a Buddhist, and he's gay. Taroob, 39, Muslim

Equality and diversity managers, in both the private and public sector, develop policies and practices to help staff work together. Effective equality and diversity strategies challenge employees and service users and help achieve cultural change and hopefully good relations between different communities. Good organisations pursue these programmes of work, even when they can sometimes be challenging for individuals in those organisations.

Whenever we've rolled out a new strategy, whether it's been around gender, race, whatever... there tends to be some kind of a reaction whether it be externally or sometimes even internally. And in some ways I think we measure the fact that we're pushing the boundaries by whether we get a reaction or not... We feel as a very large organisation in this country we have a broader responsibility to influence change where we can. Ann, retail banking

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Managing conflict

Equality and diversity managers, and line managers in general, are used to finding solutions to difficult issues in the workplace or service delivery. Participants report that employees, service users and customers sometimes request arrangements that contravene their equality and diversity policies. Issues arise in relation to gender, ethnicity, disability and religion and belief. Managers find different ways to respond to the requests in a way that maintains dignity and respect.

I know that we had an issue where a member of staff is HIV positive, and service users were refusing to have that member of staff working with them. So what we had to do was some work with those service users around educating them about HIV and AIDS awareness. Mark, city council

We had a situation not very long ago where we had a female potential client who called up and insisted that she only wanted a female team of lawyers. We said no because we will give the best team for the particular case. In the end she decided well okay she would go with the advice and go with the best team which was led by male partners but there were women in the team as well. Michelle, law firm

One of the incidents we have had in the past is we have had women who are undergoing an Islamic divorce who can't talk to a man for the period of their divorce confinement. We've given them alternative ways to contact us. Catherine, retail banking

I've dealt with it in my previous role in another organisation. A member of staff did not want to work with women. We said if you want to continue working for our organisation in this particular role then you will have to recognise that from time to time you will be working with women and from time to time you may even be alone with women. If that is something that your religion or belief will not allow you to do then perhaps this is not the best employer for you and the person resigned. Tom, public sector

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Sexual orientation and religion and belief

In 2003, legislation was introduced to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people from discrimination in the workplace. Similar laws were introduced in relation to religion and belief. Since 2007, it has been unlawful to discriminate when providing goods and services to lesbian and gay people. At the same time, similar legislation was introduced to protect people on the grounds of their religion and belief (or non-belief). As both laws were introduced at the same time, this led some commentators to ask what would happen if, in this particular situation, one set of rights was somehow 'brought into conflict' with another set of rights. Rather than leading to good relations, some were concerned that it would heighten animosity and confusion for those trying to implement the laws.

In 2007, Stonewall published Living Together, a survey conducted by YouGov. The report explored Britain's attitude to lesbian and gay people. More than half of the 2,009 respondents felt that religious attitudes were the second most prevalent cause of public prejudice against gay people. The poll also revealed, however, that people of faith are no more likely to be prejudiced than anyone else. Eighty four per cent of religious people disagreed with the statement 'homosexuality is morally unacceptable in all circumstances.'

I mean who do people think that lesbian and gay people are, some kind of aliens from outer space or something? They're just people. Catherine, 58, Christian

Despite the fact that the majority of people of faith have no problem with sexual orientation equality, and employers are familiar with resolving a variety of conflicts between staff, equality and diversity managers expressed concern as to how they would
manage issues between people of faith and gay people.

We've known for a long time that there are two pieces of legislation. If they're deemed to protect people's rights absolutely, then they're both on a collision course. We're aware of the complexity of that. Bob, higher education institution

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