The dust is yet to settle on the referendum result. The main political parties are in turmoil, and the heads of the European Union are insisting that negotiations regarding the UK’s exit begin as soon as possible.
The result was very close – 52% to 48%. Immigration was one of the big topics being referred to in the campaign. Reports suggest that younger voters predominantly voted to stay in, with older voters deciding that the UK should leave.
It is likely that people within your workplace voted differently to each other. What do you do when this becomes an issue for colleagues? There are a couple of problems which could arise.
Disagreements between colleagues
There is nothing wrong, per se, with discussing the vote itself. However, for a lot of people this is a very emotive subject, either because of their own political beliefs or because of the issues being discussed. This can lead to disagreements. Dealing with such issues quickly will be key so that they do not escalate.
It may be that someone is teased or even ridiculed for the way in which they voted. Again, this should be addressed as soon as possible in order that it does not create a bigger problem.
Given the issues that were being discussed, there are potentially wider implications in terms of discrimination.
Age, race and religious discrimination
Immigration was one of the main topics of discussion during the campaign. Reports suggest that there has been an increase in the number of racially motivated verbal and physical attacks.
As well as this, statistics suggest that a larger proportion of older voters voted to leave when compared against younger voters. We have received a number of enquiries already about employees blaming “middle aged racists” for voting Leave when they haven’t agreed with that view.
Both of these are clearly unacceptable, and remain so if they occur in the workplace. It may be, though, that more nuanced forms of discriminatory behaviour take place. For example, a general discussion regarding immigration could contribute towards creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for non-British workers or colleagues who are British and from a different ethnic or religious background than the majority of their colleagues, or indeed those who do not agree with those particular views, which could amount to harassment on the grounds of nationality or national origins, for which the Employer could also be liable.
A perhaps less obvious issue could arise in the form of religious and philosophical belief discrimination. Case law has found that some political beliefs can amount to philosophical beliefs under the Equality Act 2010, thus affording that individual protection from discrimination because of that belief. Whether an employee could show that their own political beliefs were such so as to amount to philosophical beliefs will be dependent on each circumstance. However, an employer is unlikely to know this until it is too late.
Whether someone could use their own philosophical belief to defend an allegation of racist or ageist behaviour is unlikely, though.
While you can’t stop people talking about what is an important issue, it may be wise to remind employees of what is expected of them in terms of their behaviour. Reminding employees of the contents of your Equal Opportunities and Harassment Policies, along with the consequences of not following them will hopefully prevent, or at least enable you to manage, such problems.