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Impact of Brexit in the workplace

Impact of Brexit in the workplace

Published: 6 September 2016

From both an employer and employee perspective, it is important to be aware of the implications of certain types of behaviour within the workplace following the result of the EU Referendum.

The consultancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) are advising four companies in respect of staff who have lodged legal complaints over angry clashes in the office and on social media following Brexit.

Some workers who voted Brexit have complained of hostile remarks, harassment and ‘cultural bullying’ from colleagues who voted to remain.

The head of the employment team at PwC told the Financial Times that companies who backed one side or the other during the referendum could be more a risk of legal action from staff who took the opposing view and have missed out on promotion.

There are a number of areas which could cause potential claims of harassment against employers under the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act defines harassment as unwanted conduct which has the purpose of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile degrading humiliating or offensive environment. It is possible for this to happen within the workplace without the employer being aware.

There are several areas where potential acts of harassment may arise within the working environment as follows:

1. Harassment of EU Migrant Workers

Since the EU referendum there has been an increase in xenophobic attitudes and it is possible that an employer may be responsible for the discriminatory remarks made by employees. This may arise when colleagues are asked such questions as when are they planning on going home or how long they have been in the UK.

An employer may be held responsible and liable for damages in respect of these type of remarks made within the workplace, regardless as to whether the comment was intentional or not.

2. Harassment on grounds of age

It is important to take into account the fact that the EU referendum has also caused tensions in respect of age differences. An analysis of voting patterns has demonstrated a gap between young and old. There are many comments on social media from younger voters who favoured remain, along with various responses from those who supported Brexit. The Guardian has also reported family rifts over Brexit.

Workplace discrimination complaints have been based on remarks such as ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. These types of comments can easily lead to potential rifts and arguments in the workplace and age related insults which again, fall upon the responsibility of the employer.

3. Harassment on grounds of philosophical belief

Discrimination due to philosophical belief is protected under the Equality Act and covers such beliefs as climate change and democratic socialist beliefs. In order to qualify for protection the belief must have the seriousness, cogency and importance of a religious belief and it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity.

Although cases on philosophical beliefs can have a very wide application, a tribunal decision has held that a political belief in democratic socialism by a Labour Party member was protected. There have however, been circumstances where political beliefs have not qualified for protection. Despite this, it is still important to bear in mind that there is a potential risk and employers should monitor the tone of discussions and behaviours within the workplace.

Employers experiencing any of these issues may need also need to consider diversity training for staff to avert incidents occurring. It is also important to address any concerns and potentially offensive comments as soon as possible to avoid any potential claims against the employer escalating.

Amanda Hodgson - Partner