24th February 2022

Can LGBT+ rights and religious belief rights coexist in the workplace?

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In this LGBT History Month, our CEO Sandi Wassmer explores what happens when LGBT+ rights and religious beliefs are in conflict.

Office desks with two empty chairs

Here at enei, we’ve been talking a lot about rights in conflict, that is, when an individual‘s freedom to exercise their rights clashes, infringes upon or imposes upon the freedom of another individual to exercise their rights. With respect to workplace equality, diversity and inclusion, the underlying legislation, the Equality Act 2010, covers the nine protected characteristics individually, but what happens in workplaces around the UK when these rights are in conflict?

Back in 2015, when I worked at Jewish Care, I attended a wonderful LGBT+ workshop, run by the inspirational folk at KeshetUK. As it happens, my son Martin, had just come out as gay a few days earlier and, although I remain saddened by the fact that people still need to come out (which I talk about in my earlier blog, Come on out for good: the past, present and future of coming out), I was beaming with pride and happiness for Martin, as it was an important step for him in being able to be content and confident just as he is.

So, you can imagine my utter dismay when an ultra-orthodox colleague turned to me and said, to paraphrase, I will accept Martin because I know he is a good guy, but as far as my religious beliefs go, it is an abomination. I was so taken aback by what I heard, particularly in the context of the workshop we were participating in, that I said nothing, turned away from him and began chatting pretty nonsensically to the person on my other side. Of course, I realise how ridiculous this may seem now, but I knew that the anger that rose up in me was not the right approach for a response. I hang my head low as I write because I chose to ignore it. I just didnt know how to approach it, so I went home, had a super rant to my husband and let it go.

What I know now is that this is a really good example of rights in conflict in the workplace, so, what should I have done?

Well, first I think its important to understand the human rights principles that are the foundation for all workplace equality, diversity and inclusion work. As moral principles, fundamental human rights are inalienable, but not absolute. To exercise their rights, each human being must respect and not violate the rights of others. As such, the exercising of these rights is conditional upon us also exercising our social responsibilities and duties to each other.

In my example, my son has the right to live freely as a gay man, and my former colleague has the right to his beliefs.

Although these rights are in conflict, my son’s right to be gay and my former colleague’s right to his beliefs have equal weight, as there is no hierarchy of human rights.

The solution lies in the fact that human rights in practice require social responsibility. In my example, my son’s right to live as a gay man does not infringe upon, inhibit or harm my former colleague's right to his beliefs and vice versa. My former colleague did not, however, have the right to impose his beliefs on me in the way he did, as doing so caused hurt. And this is where the social responsibility comes in, as he had a responsibility to be respectful to me and cause me no harm. My son’s right to live as a gay man and my former colleague’s right to his beliefs can and should coexist, in a culture and environment of respect and dignity.

But, I have not answered the question of what I should have done differently, and that is actually quite simple. I should have done what I always do now in such situations; I should have responded with respect, kindness and compassion, and taken it as an opportunity to educate. I should have found my way to, at the right time and in the right context, express to my colleague how hurtful his words were to me and therefore open up the conversation for us both to learn and grow.

- Sandi Wassmer, CEO, Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion

Photo credit: Laura Davidson on Unsplash