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A war of words | Managing employees’ political views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Written by Lesley Rennie on 13 April 2022

The war in Ukraine, and the daily news reports of fatalities, continues to spark conversation in the workplace.

All employees, regardless of their nationality and any direct connection to the conflict, will have their own views, and some may be keen to share these with their colleagues. 

It’s certainly an emotive topic. And while an open dialogue about these distressing global events can be cathartic, it may also give rise to disagreements and disputes. For employers, this presents potential issues.

Preventing anti-Russian bullying and harassment

Anti-Russian hate is rising in Europe. Indeed, reports are emerging that Russian expats who have never sympathised with Putin, and who are just as horrified by what’s happening in Ukraine as anybody else, are facing a wave of generalised hostility.

“There’s a sense of a clear enemy”, said sociologist Aleksandra Lewicki in an article for the Washington Post. “It’s Russians, from all walks of life, who are being targeted by racist hate crimes and derogatory comments.”

As people boycott Russian vodka and engage in other small acts of protest, there’s a danger that this could spill over into the workplace, and Russian colleagues may become the targets of abuse. So how should employers respond?

The answer is setting clear expectations around behaviour in the workplace through robust and well-communicated policies, particularly Equal Opportunities and Anti-Bullying and Harassment policies, with any breaches of these being thoroughly investigated and appropriately dealt with. 

Any instances of inappropriate comments being made should be fully explored to understand whether any breaches of those standards of behaviour have occurred, with disciplinary action following where necessary.

In some cases, an informal reminder of the sensitivities of the conflict and the need to be mindful of this when conversing with colleagues may be all that is required to achieve that balance.

Additionally, line managers should be encouraged to set an example by their own actions and to act promptly should situations arise. Failing to do so could be interpreted as them condoning highly-charged political debates or co-signing any offensive commentary on the conflict.

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Potential consequences of letting harassment slide

All employees, regardless of nationality, ought to be treated equally within the workplace. Any detrimental treatment of any specific nationality – whether directly, such as a line manager refusing to promote a Russian employee, or indirectly, such as a policy of only allowing Ukrainian employees leave to return home – may result in claims for unlawful discrimination.

Claims could incur significant costs, as well as attract adverse publicity, so it’s in an employer’s interest to ensure managers are briefed on the organisation’s stance and made aware of these potential pitfalls.

Employers should bear in mind that an individual’s personal view on the conflict may unconsciously feed into how they treat their colleagues and line reports. From a legal standpoint, motive plays no part in the success of a discrimination claim, and as such, businesses should be alive to the possibility of unconscious prejudices and how these might manifest.  

An employee’s expression of their view on the conflict may give rise to a harassment claim where that view is inextricably linked to nationality, as this forms part of the protected characteristic of race under the Equality Act 2010.

Where an employee espouses a view about a specific nationality, for instance about Russians or Ukrainians, and the communication of that view amounts to unwanted conduct which violates another employee’s dignity or creates an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, there may be grounds for a harassment claim. 

What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether the employee on the receiving end of this treatment is of the particular nationality, or even whether the individual expressing their view intended to cause offence; what matters is the effect of that view.

If things do escalate into a harassment claim, whilst the individual employee could be found liable, so too may the employer in cases where they are unable demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it.  

For these reasons, now is a good time for employers to revisit and reissue their Equal Opportunities and Anti-Bullying and Harassment policies with refresher training to ensure that, as a business, they can demonstrate that they have effective strategies in place to prevent unlawful discrimination and promote a unified and diverse team.

Dealing with allegations and conflict resolution

Where specific allegations of harassment or bullying are made by one employee against another, these may need to be sensitively managed through a fair grievance procedure, which may involve separating the employees whilst the process is ongoing.

Where the allegations are found to have substance, the disciplinary procedure should be invoked. In the most serious of cases, this may result in the summary dismissal of the employee involved.

In all other cases, whether or not a disciplinary sanction is imposed, those involved may still need to work together. In this case, employers may consider the use of mediation to facilitate a way of moving forward where employees have conflicting views.

Dismissing those with extreme political views

While the above measures may be enough to mitigate tensions in the workplace, there may be situations whereby people’s political views are so extreme or cause such offence that dismissal must be considered.

In these scenarios, employers must keep in mind that conversations had around the war in Ukraine may extend beyond nationality and into the realm of political beliefs which may, depending upon the circumstances, qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010 as a philosophical belief.

‘Philosophical belief’ is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, alongside sex, race and disability. It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees for reasons related to a protected characteristic, and claims for discrimination can arise where an employee with a protected belief can show that this was the reason for their treatment.  

Defining whether a particular viewpoint amounts to a protected belief isn’t always cut and dry. However, if it goes beyond a mere opinion and is instead a “genuinely held, weighty belief” which has “sufficient cogency and importance” and is “worthy of respect in a democratic society”, it may well qualify for protection.

Recent case law has shown that only the most extreme views which undermine the fundamental rights of others will not be worthy of respect and therefore will not constitute a protected belief. For instance, Nazism.

Allegiance to a particular political party, for instance support of a specific president, is unlikely to qualify for protection against discrimination. However, even where a belief is not protected, employers must still  be alert to the possibility of unfair dismissal claims where an employee alleges that their dismissal was due to their political affiliations or opinions. Employees who can show they have been dismissed because of their political affiliations or opinions  will not require the usual two years’ service to bring a claim and the fairness of their dismissal will depend upon whether there was a fair reason, such as conduct or some other substantial reason, and whether it was reasonable in all the circumstances to dismiss for that reason.

Of course, that’s not to say that employers can never consider dismissal as an option in the most serious of cases. However, particular care must be taken to ensure that the reason for dismissal is not the belief or the opinion held by the employee but rather the manifestation of it, such as aggressively imposing the view upon others in breach of your Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policy. As always, it’s safest to take advice.

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Overcome employee issues fairly and legally with WorkNest

As an employer or manager, you should do all you can to try to prevent and stop bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation at work.

If you’re dealing with a workplace grievance, or feel that somebody’s political beliefs are manifesting in a way that warrants disciplinary actionWorkNest’s Employment Law and HR specialists can help you to take the appropriate action whilst avoiding legal pitfalls. We can also help you to proactively prevent such behaviour and protect your position in the event of a claim through clear HR policies, carefully drafted on your behalf.

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