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January or Veganuary? An updated protected rights guide

View profile for Molly Mackay
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As a New Year begins, resolutions and goals are often associated with the first month of the year, whether those be personal or professional. Additionally the rise of ‘Veganuary’, a movement in which people are encouraged to adopt a vegan lifestyle throughout January, has grown in popularity. The Guardian reported that in 2020 there had been an estimated 40% increase in those following veganism, with approximately 500,000 more committing to Veganuary.

The rise of veganism in mainstream culture has also increased, with brands such as Dr. Martens introducing vegan alternatives to their leather shoes and increasing numbers of public figures, including Lewis Hamilton and Benedict Cumberbatch, subscribing to a vegan lifestyle. This article takes a look at the protections vegans may attract in the workplace and the possible considerations for employers as a result. 

What protections cover veganism? 

Under the Equality Act 2010, one of the protected characteristics is ‘religion or belief’, where a belief can be founded either in religion or philosophy. Whilst the legislation does not further define a philosophical belief, case law has helped establish some guidance which includes that:

  1. the belief must be genuinely held
  2. it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and 
  3. the belief does not need to be shared by others

In 2020, an employment tribunal found that ethical veganism satisfied the necessary legal tests and the belief held by the employee was ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. Similarly, last year a Scottish Employment Tribunal awarded over £12,000 to a vegan employee of a Subway franchise, where a line manager made jokes surrounding her veganism and waved meat in her face.

Further developments in 2022 confirmed the parameters of the protection, where in another case, a belief in ethical veganism extending to and including breaking the law to relieve animal suffering, did not fall under the protections of the Equality Act. As the act of breaking the law could not be reconciled with the principles of a democratic society, the claim failed. 

What about vegetarians?

Notably, veganism and vegetarianism have been distinguished by the courts. In 2019, an employment judge found that vegetarianism, whilst being a genuinely held belief, did not amount to a weighty and substantial aspect of life and the behaviour of a vegetarian employee did not satisfy all elements of the test to justify legal protection. 

Moving forward in January and beyond 

What the employment tribunal cases have highlighted, is that veganism is a multi-layered belief with varying degrees amongst those who follow a vegan lifestyle. Whilst all vegans will follow a plant-based diet, many will also avoid using animal based products such as leather clothing and using items that rely on animal testing. 

It is therefore vital that employers are aware of the potential extent of the beliefs of a vegan employee. It could even impact on their role – for example, a vegan working in the food industry may not wish to work with any animal based products, creating a potentially difficult situation to manage. It is important that employers don’t dismiss concerns out of hand, that they consider the employee’s viewpoints and seek to come to a resolution that works for all. Veganism is a protection that cannot be sidelined if employers want to avoid litigation. 

What does this mean in practice for employers? 

Whilst Veganuary shines a light on the need for employers to consider measures to put in place for their vegan employees, there are principles highlighted by the various cases that can be applied across all protected characteristics. 

Here are some measures that employers could consider, not only to minimise the risk of falling foul of the Equality Act, but also in the spirit of maintaining good employee relations: 

  1. Are your facilities, and benefits, inclusive? For example, many workplaces make drinks available for staff. As well as supplying dairy milk, alternatives such as oat or almond milk should also be considered. This may support not only vegan employees, but those with dietary intolerances (which could even be as a result of a condition that qualifies as a disability);
  2. Workplace ‘banter’ should not be at the expense of anyone’s beliefs. It is important to ensure that no one feels harassed or singled out by others based on their being vegan, or following a particular religion; 
  3. When running a work event, it is important to consider catering options that will be inclusive. Consider your vegan employees, and those with dietary needs connected to a disability or religion, as well as those who just have certain personal preferences. This is a key way to ensure that everyone can attend and feel included; 
  4. Consider initiatives to highlight events such as Veganuary, and religious festivals that may affect colleagues (such as Ramadan). Educating all colleagues about these can encourage healthy conversation, ensure that employees better understand what their colleagues may be experiencing, and allow colleagues to share their experiences with others. It will be important to promote respect amongst employees during these conversations; 
  5. Is your Equality Policy boilerplate, or have you put real thought into it? Consider the diversity of your workforce, and whether your policy reflects this. For example, include the topic of veganism in the policy and in any training provided to staff. This will seek to maximise tolerance and understanding of the subject.