An interview with Dr Andrew Hambler
There is conflict for many Christians in the work place.
en has asked Dr Andrew Hambler, senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, to bring some clarity to where Bible-believing Christians stand regarding faith in a secular workplace.
en: How, within one generation, have Christians gone from being seen as reliable employees to fearing for their jobs?
AH: In 2003 when the Sexual Orientation and the Religion and Belief Regulations came into law, creating new protections and adding to the existing body of discrimination law, things changed. Although these laws were developed with protecting people at their heart, they have had unforeseen consequences. Employers are sometimes worried that they might face a ‘harassment’ claim by a non-religious employee if they allow ‘religious employees’ to articulate their beliefs, particularly if they include some criticism (even implied) of same-sex couples, for example. This has made employers less tolerant when religious beliefs are articulated.
en: So legislation designed to protect people of faith, actually works against them?
AH: In some ways, yes. But it’s important to take a closer look at the origin of those regulations. In the days prior to and during the drafting of these laws in 2003, there was a clear connection made between religion and ethnicity. The ACAS Guide to Religion and Belief, written in 2003 to help employers understand religious discrimination, is concerned primarily with the protection of minority religions. It makes mention of accommodation of dress codes, religious symbols and so on which on the whole do not apply to Christians. In some ways I think it may have come as a surprise to those who drafted the Religion and Belief Regulations (now subsumed into the Equality Act 2010) that they have been invoked so often by Christians but I’m not sure they were really designed with Christians in mind.
en: Does the law offer any help then to Christians?
AH: At a basic level, yes. It stops people being refused jobs just because they are Christians. For example there were news reports of a hotel which did not want to employ a Christian because he wouldn’t ‘fit in’ with the other employees. Reportedly he won an out of court settlement from the employer when he began legal proceedings. This protection is helpful, of course. The problem is that it does not really help Christians to go on to express their faith when employers are hostile.
en: When ‘Joe Christian’ hears the results of a court case where a Christian has claimed religious discrimination against their employer, it pretty much always ends with the Christian losing the case. The question that many ask is why don’t we have a ‘reasonable accommodation’ provision here in the UK as they do in the USA?
AH: Reasonable accommodation sounds reasonable! In theory it requires employers to accept and ‘accommodate’ religious practices in the workplace, such as the wearing of religious symbols, using religious language, perhaps even ‘witnessing’ to other employees. However, the problem is that in the US in particular, this legal right does not have much meaning because the employer can argue ‘undue hardship’ to avoid making these accommodations. So, if there is any cost to the employer (including reputational cost) then they can say it is unreasonable to offer any accommodations at all.
So, I’m not sure whether reasonable accommodation would add very much unless it was introduced as a much stronger right (similar to the well-known right of employees with disabilities to have ‘reasonable adjustments’ made to enable them to work). What we do have in the UK is the right not to suffer ‘indirect discrimination’ because of someone’s religious beliefs, and when this right is invoked by a Christian it usually results in a court ‘balancing’ the rights of Christians to articulate their beliefs against employers’ rights to keep their workplaces secular.
en: What about the use of rational objections to discrimination? If, say, an NHS worker found herself having to agree to promote abortion, couldn’t she use a rational argument, e.g. citing the number of women who suffer depression after abortions, in order to avoid using a religious discrimination argument in a tribunal?
AH: When I speak to NHS HR managers, they often talk about the value of the ‘neutral workplace’. They see that as good practice. As such, the expression of Christian perspectives, or the using of religious arguments regarding objections to abortions, for example, are likely to evoke limited sympathy (although for doctors only there are some limited protections for conscience). But though neutrality sounds enticing, it means secularism in reality. And secularism isn’t neutral. Secular viewpoints on life and death and on issues of human sexuality, parenthood, etc., are very loaded, and one could argue that vocal Christian perspectives are sorely needed as a counterbalance to what appears to be the prevailing ethos. But the idea of ‘neutrality’ prevents this.
en: In your opinion, should a Christian use the law and make a complaint against an employer?
AH: I think that employees should always try to resolve their difficulties where possible in dialogue with the employer, and be prepared to compromise to the extent that their conscience allows. Unfortunately employers are not always equally reasonable.
In those circumstances, should Christians use the law? The courtroom is not a pleasant place. Even the boldest people find it challenging in the extreme; don’t underestimate the toll it will take on you. It is very hard to remain consistent, and your past conduct in the workplace may come out. You shouldn’t necessarily be put off, but if you have been a difficult employee or if you have been disciplined for an unrelated matter, this may be referred to in the tribunal.
So, I think I would say you need to examine your motives and past conduct very carefully and consider what the outcome may be. If you are standing for a principle, then yes, that can be good reason to go to court. But even if that is true, it depends very much upon the individual as to whether they are able to withstand the ordeal of a tribunal case. I am aware of many Christians who say they have found their faith strengthened during the stress of a tribunal claim but also many who find the experience too painful to talk about even some time after the event.
en: Do you think things will get harder for Christians in the workplace?
AH: Yes, certainly for those who want to share their faith at work. My anecdotal evidence is that some employers and certainly professional bodies (e.g. the GMC with its recently revised code of conduct for doctors) are making this more difficult.
Even for those who don’t ‘witness’ very overtly, there may be problems of conscience. For example, there is the fear which was voiced by the Coalition for Marriage that Christian teachers may be required to use resources in the classroom which promote same-sex relationships, something which for many will go against conscience. Michael Gove has gone on record to say that will not happen – but who is to say what the situation will be under a future government? There are certainly no firm legal protections for conscience for teachers built into the Equal Marriage legislation.
However, despite these particular issues, I suspect that the majority of difficulties that Christians face at work will probably continue to be the same as ever – mockery, sidelining, pressure to do something dishonest, temptation to gossip, etc. Such problems have no doubt always existed in the workplace and most Christians may find their particular ‘trials’ at work extend no further than this.
Andrew Hambler is the author of Religious expression in the workplace and the contested role of law, due for publication by Routledge on 15 November 2014