Workplace Guides: Religion and Sexual Orientation

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Where to Draw the Line 

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Where to draw the line

"Where do you draw the line? These people have been employed for a reason; they must have been the best candidate at one point. Hopefully they still are a valued member staff. Do you really want to lose them? The answer is probably no, so how do you handle the situation to make sure that they are both happy, remain happy, within the workforce?" Chandra, local council

Equality and diversity managers express concern about how best to manage the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people and the rights of people of faith if they come into conflict. Sometimes, participants felt that the anticipation of conflict prevents organisations from fully pursuing a work programme to achieve community cohesion.

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The law

Equality and diversity managers express confusion about the law in relation to employment and service delivery. Although many express a basic understanding of sexual orientation legislation and religion and belief legislation, there is a degree of confusion about how to implement it.

"I probably feel an individual claiming on religious grounds has fewer rights under the law than a lesbian or gay individual. So if they're claiming on religious grounds that they won't work with someone because they're a homosexual, I think the person claiming on religious grounds has less rights, but I don't know that for a fact." Siobhan, private sector multinational company

There is also confusion about how any exemptions apply. The 2003 employment regulations contain very narrow exemptions which only allow religious organisations to discriminate if the post or service is directly associated with the doctrine of any faith. Organisations are sometimes concerned, however, about how those exemptions might apply in the context of their work.

"Well, I've got a bit confused lately over the way that Christian organisations have been trying to be treated around adoption. It's worried me intensely. I do think that we need to be much stronger in terms of some of the "out" that these people perceive that they can get because of their faith." David,
children and young people's services

"There are some religious exemptions, couldn't quote them, but I know there are some where the church is involved as an employer but we don't really get involved in that... I'm a bit sketchy about that." Simon, government department

Recent tribunal cases involving religion and belief and sexual orientation have also caused concern about how to manage potential conflicts in relation to service delivery and employment. Equality and diversity managers say that they have lost confidence in their own approaches to issues because they are not sure how the courts would view their decisions and processes.

"I would feel personally out of my depth in dealing with it because I don't exactly know what the case law has established, really. I don't know - I would be looking for external legal advice and support on that one." Laura, uniformed service

"I'm still confident about our internal procedures and also the advice you get from employment lawyers. I'm not sure I'm that confident in the ability and consistency of the courts to rule on those sorts of cases." Louise, housing provider

Participants reported that misunderstandings about rulings - particularly when cases have been settled before reaching tribunal - have made it seem easier for staff to suggest they should be exempt from carrying out duties expected in a role. Equality and diversity managers felt they require clarification on exactly how the law works and what appropriate actions they can take to achieve community cohesion.

"I think that this opportunity for people to trump one thing over the other is actually causing an awful lot of animosity, an awful lot of confusion and issues." Catherine, retail banking

"I think we've ended up with a situation that works both ways. It's clearly important that in a workplace you don't discriminate against people in terms of their religion and their religious beliefs and practices and ideologies, but at the same time you have a situation where it seems that people are able to discriminate against others even when they're in a role of public duty." Michelle, law firm

"It is about striking the balance between those people who are being mischievous, for want of a better word, and those people who do have genuine and strongly held religious beliefs. If somebody did say they had strongly held beliefs and therefore could not attend Gay Pride, we would probably try and accommodate that. But we don't know at the moment if that means we falling foul of one set of regulations or the other, really, because of the recent cases." Laura, uniformed service

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Organisational knowledge

Some practitioners feel that issues involving lesbian and gay people and people of faith are not more difficult to handle than other issues, but they often have less experience in these areas. Public sector organisations have an explicit duty to promote good relations on the grounds of race, gender and disability. The proactive obligation to take steps to prevent discrimination, not just respond to incidents, makes them feel more confident about their judgement and more confident in the ability of their organisations to handle difficult issues concerning racism or sexism.

"As an organisation, we would be much more confident that we deal with race issues effectively as opposed to most of the other issues." Helen, uniformed services

"Sometimes people don't understand what discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation can encompass. Sometimes it's ignorance about what discrimination means. In terms of tackling it, it is still a fairly new area, and something that we need to bring our line managers up on more. Anything around race stuff, people get it and understand it. But around homophobia, people are still getting used to the agenda as it were. And as a very large organisation we have an awful lot of managers who don't, or don't want to, get the agenda..." Mark, city council

Participants felt that even if they understood the law, and how to resolve any conflicts, they did not necessarily have the same confidence in other managers, especially if they had not received training in relation to sexual orientation. They felt that different responses from managers across organisations could sometimes lead to inconsistency.

"There's a range of confidence and capacity across the organisation. I know some of our managers who would state very clearly 'that's not acceptable, you deal with that client in the same as you would deal with other clients who are not lesbians and if you choose not to then you will be suspended, there will be an enquiry and at the end of the day you'll be out of job'. There are others who would be saying 'I can see what you mean, it must be very difficult for you' which for me is rubbish." Steve, health organisation

Others felt that line managers might sometimes be dismissive about potential conflicts and may not necessarily understand that issues were emerging as a result of personality clashes, rather than an infringement of rights.

"I tend to have the impression that very often people dealing with the cases, whilst they have had training in relation to good practice in terms of these issues, and they are aware of people's broad rights, I think there tends to be a sort of 'oh it's just the students, it's just one of those things', to begin
with. So it starts from a position of 'oh it will sort itself out'."
Bob, higher education institution

The failure to identify potential conflicts as equality issues also leads to underreporting from staff or service users. Participants feel that incidents are occurring, but they do not necessarily come to their attention.

"The problem is that sometimes it's difficult to act on hearsay. So there's no doubt in our mind that issues still arise. It's particularly pertinent, in relation to student accommodation, the way students are living together." Bob, higher education institution

"I've definitely heard of these things anecdotally in terms of the experiences of homosexual people, or gay, lesbian and bisexual service users. I've heard it, but I haven't actually been confronted with it myself. So the individuals who've experienced it haven't come to me, but I have heard it through evidence that we've gathered in terms of case studies." Nicola, health organisation

When incidents do come to the attention of equality managers, some feel that they do not necessarily know how to respond in the best way. Instead, some feel they react to situations on a case-by-case basis. This combined with a lack of confidence in the law sometimes leads to unsatisfactory outcomes.

"There's a massive gap in understanding of those two areas. I'm confident that we can resolve anything through dialogue and engagement, but how quickly we do that and how efficiently we do that is dependent on the specific situation and of course it shouldn't be like that. We should be much more systematic and efficient in how we address those things efficiently, quickly and heal those wounds between the service user and the provider. Sometimes I think we bash providers as well without actually giving them the right support." Saheema, health organisation

Participants report that when faced with a conflict they sometimes find it difficult to consider it in the same way they approach other equality issues and this undermines their ability to apply existing policies and good practice to scenarios involving faith. Rather than address the issue of 'conflicting freedoms, they are instead sometimes overwhelmed by the possible enormity of trying to find resolution.

"My experience of working with a sexual orientation group and the religion groups is just that they're in very, very different places. I mean the Christians genuinely believe that God is telling them this is wrong because it's in the Bible. It comes from very, very deep seated faith and roots and therefore it's a huge problem to try to shift that. What I'm going to say to them is I'm up against God basically and I'm not going to win. So you have to try and use other methods to actually get them to perhaps meet some of these people and realise that actually they haven't sinned and they're not bad. But you know it's just comes from their interpretation of the Bible and I don't think that's ever going to change." Siobhan, private sector multinational company

Some managers conclude that the only possible resolution when a member of staff expresses difficulty about working with gay people is for that member of staff to leave the organisation. This is felt to be a hugely regrettable outcome, but in the context where no other solutions have been developed, it can seem like the only solution.

"I do feel for a manager who has to deal with it because I don't think there is enough guidance over the matter on how to deal with it. I think it is a very tricky area. I think the law is too black and white and it doesn't understand the dynamics within it. Because you can still have an excellent employee with these beliefs, you don't really want to get rid of them, but at the same time how do you get them to understand that their practice - that their religious beliefs - are preventing them from providing an equal service and that they are behaving in a homophobic way?" Chandra, local council

The lack of understanding and clarity around managing difficulties makes situations worse, and is less likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome for all parties.

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