Workplace Guides: Religion and Sexual Orientation

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Where to draw the line | Case studies | Top ten steps

How to Prevent and Respond to Incidents

Organisations are experienced at resolving conflicts between staff. Similar principles apply in the rare cases when there are conflicts around faith and sexual orientation.

There are a series of steps organisations can take to prevent incidents:

Acknowledge that it might be a problem

"I just left the job because I wasn’t comfortable in that place with the gay man, it’s embarrassing, you know." Laila, 30, Muslim

Equality and diversity managers say that they are often surprised when issues arise between people of faith about sexual orientation and are not sure how to handle these issues. The vast majority of people of faith do not object to lesbian, gay and bisexual people or strategies to support them. In common with other equality issues however, issues can and do arise, and therefore practitioners should consider how they might handle situations. Assuming it will not be a problem can lead to difficulties in the future.

"We recruit amongst the best, the best intellectually, and that I think means that we’re recruiting people whose minds are open. So I don’t think it’s as much of a problem for us as it might be for others." Margaret, higher education institution

I have a hard time thinking that it would become an ‘issue’. I’d be ignorant to say that there might not be the one off time when that could happen which means that obviously we need to do something on how we would handle that situation. But do I think this will become a problem for us? No, I do not see it becoming a problem for us. Angela, private sector company
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Develop clear strategies

Organisations most confident about preventing conflicts have very clear strategies that all employees sign up to. Policies stating explicitly that no member of staff can discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in either employment or service delivery send a clear message to all staff about expected behaviour. These policies enable equality and diversity practitioners to point out when behaviours aren’t in line with organisational cultures.

"When you joined you signed a contract that said you would serve all members of the community. You never raised with us that you would have an issue dealing with X, Y or Z. We would therefore be looking to resolve our differences and either that person take up the duties or we will probably part company. It is not reasonable for us to make an adjustment to enable someone to not provide services to one section of the community because of their religion and belief." David, children and young people’s service

I think we were all pretty clear about where we stand in terms of the law; our policies are very clear in terms of how we reflect our responsibilities under the legislation. We are trained to support staff to have the right to hold a particular belief but this is also set in the context of the fact that when you are at work you’re obliged to follow our own policies which are much, much more focused on the dignity of the individual. Employees have a responsibility to uphold that dignity irrespective of what their personal beliefs might be. Tom, public sector service provider
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Decide where the line is, and be robust about it

Organisations which have established what they expect from all their staff find it easier to respond to incidents when they arise. When organisations are unsure what they can reasonably expect from staff, they find it more difficult to insist that staff carry out duties they claim are against their religion or belief.

"We make it very clear that if we contract for the delivery of services and that delivery of services includes services to young people who are identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or whatever, then we expect the level of service provision to be good and we are prepared to help to train them, facilitate them, help them to challenge issues and attitudes. But the bottom line is don’t accept a contract unless you’re going to be able to deliver because if young people come back to us and say we were discriminated against, then it will put your contract in jeopardy." David, children and young people’s service

"Everyone is entitled to their belief. Where we draw the line is it is unacceptable if you inflict your views, whatever they are, in a way that can be seen to be discriminatory or hurtful to someone. We try to address that within training as well now." Chandra, local council

"We have such a strong line; never mind what the legislation says, that’s one thing but this is how we wish you to behave. If you’re going to work in this organisation, this is what we expect from you in terms of equality and diversity, amongst a whole range of other things in terms of how people perform and interact with each other and with customers. And because that’s so well ingrained, entrenched in the training, the communication, the way we recruit – right across the board – we would feel we were letting down our standards if we almost hid behind that kind of legislative precedent. Because that’s not how we believe the world should be run, and so we would be prepared to take a stand on that." Ann, retail banking

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Get buy-in from the top

Equality and diversity managers feel far more confident about challenging issues if they know they have the full support of management. If and when incidents occur, it is important that all levels of the organisation support the approach taken by equality and diversity practitioners and line managers. This increases confidence and sends a clear message to all staff that policies are not designed to disadvantage any one community but support the business.

"I think we were quite shocked by the response and quite how hostile it was at the beginning. But we were given support by our managers at the time who were senior uniformed officers. We got the support of a couple of members of the Management Team and they came down to talk to staff and support our position." Laura, uniformed services

"I think it’s about organisations having the conversation beforehand, not waiting for incidents. But also we have to have the confidence that we will be supported by senior management who won’t backtrack because of the fear of a legal hearing or bad publicity." Saheema, health organisation

"We were delighted in a sense with the way that all went because we had the unquestioning support of the chairman and our chief executive." Ann, banking sector

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Communicate strategies and explain them

Equality and diversity managers report that they sometimes encounter opposition to sexual orientation strategies when those complaining do not necessarily understand why lesbian, gay and bisexual people are protected and supported in the workplace. For some people, sexual orientation is a private matter and it is not immediately clear why these issues might be relevant. This therefore can lead to opposition to appropriate initiatives and strategies.

"When someone objected, we went back very directly saying, this is why we do it, it is part of our strategy. He came back saying, ‘thank you that’s been very interesting, I now feel I understand more why you did it and I understand the context within your diversity strategy overall. I’ve looked at the internal website.’ We had recommended that they have a look at the overall program that we have and understand why we do what we do." Ann, retail bank

"With both network groups, we’ve broached the subject and talked about how they feel and tried to get them to think about the other person’s point of view. Then we integrate things into training, and into behaviour, into respect, into all the work that we do so we’re constantly getting subliminal and core messages over in different ways and different formats." Siobhan, private sector multinational company

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Check job descriptions

Equality and diversity managers report that problems sometimes arise when job descriptions do not explicitly state that staff are expected to deliver a particular service, for example, civil partnerships as well as marriages. In the light of legal changes around the provision of goods and services, it is important to check that staff understand what their job entails.

"When the law changed, potentially all those job descriptions and role descriptions should have also been reviewed in the light of that. Cases have relied upon a clause in the job description that wasn’t very articulate – that didn’t say that the requirements of a role would be to conduct civil partnership ceremonies and that a job description only contained the word marriage, I think, and wedding and so on. I think that’s what has been relied on in tribunal and therefore from an employment point of view, an employer – it was argued – hadn’t actually required a person to perform civil partnerships. I think most right minded people can see that would be an expectation of performing that role. That would be the spirit of the law." Catherine, retail banking

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Bring groups together

Organisations that have actively sought to bring faith networks to work collaboratively with lesbian, gay and bisexual networks find that there are greater levels of understanding between the two groups, and fewer problems. It is also important to remember that lesbian, gay and bisexual people can also be religious and may therefore want to be involved in religious initiatives as well as sexual orientation initiatives.

"In December we held a World Aids Day event and it was led by our LGBT network but we involved our Christian network, and our Muslim network. We included all those groups. They were all invited. I know members of those groups came. So we do a pretty good job of linking up all of the networks." Angela, private sector 

"I have come across some gay people and I think I have changed my opinion. I have worked with these people, you know, they’re really nice people... they are people." Husna, 24, Muslim

"I would love to encourage every Christian I knew, and every Christian I don’t know, to say before you make these pronouncements of opposition and complete  un-acceptance of individuals, get to know them as individuals first." Laura, 34, Christian

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Treat all parties with dignity and respect

Some equality and diversity managers report that when a person seems to be homophobic, and thinks that they are justified in their behaviour, it can be difficult to ensure that all parties treat that individual with dignity and respect. The ideal outcome is that the individual understands why their behaviour is inappropriate, rather than being formerly disciplined for their stance. Working towards understanding and respect is a better outcome for all involved.

"The first part about treating people with respect is usually listening to them. If they have a particular concern or a particular issue you listen to them first and if there’s something you can do within the bounds of reasonableness that isn’t detrimental to your service or your reputation then you do it on the grounds that you’ve entered into an agreement that person which has responsibility on both sides. If there’s not something you can do, you’ve listened to their complaint or their issue, you’ve communicated why something cannot be done and you leave that person as an adult to make a decision about where they go from there. It’s common sense." Tom, public sector service provider

"Actually, this is a human issue, it’s not a moral issue, and it’s about people’s humanity and their rights to protection in the same way that we have religious freedom as well." Laura, 34, Christian

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The importance of mediation

Equality and diversity managers say that when an issue arises neither party necessarily wants it to become a disciplinary matter. Instead, it is important to find a way to mediate and find middle ground between two parties. Using mediation means that both parties feel that they are listened to, and it is sometimes easier to find common ground. Practitioners felt that when they had participated in mediation, they were able to maintain dignity at work without having to redeploy or dismiss a member of staff.

"There was some mediation within the team and some work done on workplace behaviour. ‘As a member of staff, this is what we expect you to do, and you should have these core values that include valuing colleagues, and treating colleagues with respect. These are the core values that we expect you to have, and therefore that needs to be retained within the workforce.’ As a result of mediation, I think there’s better understanding on both sides in terms of lifestyle, behaviour, etc. I think the mediation did actually work, actually getting people face to face, together, to talk about it. ‘You saying this makes me feel like this,’ I think that really did help." Mark, city council

I guess one of the things that we would encourage is that this would be dealt "with at a local level and in an informal way. One of the things our training is actually doing is equipping managers with the skills to recognise that kind of stuff and just say: Well how would you deal with this?" Louise, housing provider

"Very often I can imagine bringing third parties into this and again it could be industry groups, it could be professional associations, it could be formal mediators, it could be facilitators, because you’re trying to find a dialogue between a customer and us. You’re creating this win-win situation because you want us to supply you and I want the business." Siobhan, private sector multinational company

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Using formal processes

If a situation cannot be resolved informally, it’s important that processes are in place to manage an internal, formal resolution. This requires thinking about how current structures would be used in a case, and whether the policies and strategies are in place to help resolve a situation. Issues are far more difficult to resolve when organisations are developing processes in reaction to a particular case, rather than implementing previously established policies.

"As an employer you have a duty of care to all your employees so I think whatever process you put into place you need to make sure that it is fair and transparent. I think this is where it’s really important to talk to both parties so that both people kind of get to put forward their point of view and what their experience and understanding of the situation is. I think it’s also important that the employer makes it clear what the code of behaviour and the standard of behaviour expected in the workplace is and what is appropriate and what isn’t. This is where things like induction and equality and diversity training are very important as well. So you have a duty of care to both but clearly if somebody is being harassed and bullied then we have a duty to make sure that that behaviour stops." Louise, housing provider

"It was something that we tried to resolve informally. We weren’t able to resolve the issue by simply sitting down with the two individuals and chatting through the impact of people’s behaviours... We have a formal process within the organisation that can if necessary include external assessors and mediators. We have an employee assistance hotline that provides trained advice and support in these areas. But in the end we used internal processes. We have internal staff who provide advice on what’s correct and incorrect policy or behaviour. In the end it went down the formal route where reports were made and a judgement or ruling was given against the person. He was disciplined and told to desist. Both staff remain in post and the situation is resolved." Tom, public sector service provider

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