Issues of religion and belief and the Christmas party – a problem…?

Readers will know that under the Equality Act 2010 religion and belief are protected characteristics, and it follows that employees who suffer less favourable treatment because of such characteristics can complain of discrimination. So does holding a Christmas party amount less favourable treatment of the non-Christian?

The first point to note, obviously, is that there is usually very little other than the prefix “Christmas“ that connects the usual office party with the Christian religion. Certainly attendance at an office Christmas party couldn’t be seen as an act of specifically Christian worship (unless it was a very strange party) and as such merely holding such a party is unlikely to form the basis of a claim for discrimination because of religion and belief.

Ironically it was because of religious belief that celebrating Christmas was once banned in Britain, but it was because of specifically puritan Christian ideas that the ban was imposed: from the 1640s through to the Restoration in 1660 Christmas was outlawed, and even today there are Christian denominations who proscribe Christmas. Viewing a Christmas party as something that favours Christian over other religions (and other non-religious beliefs such as atheism or secularism) is unlikely to form the basis of a successful discrimination claim.

Employers need, however, to be sensitive to the views of multifaith (and no faith) workplaces. That might require consideration of ensuring at any social event that there are appropriate menu options available such as alcohol free drinks, and meeting the dietary requirements of different religions and belief systems. Don’t forget that we’ve seen cases where ethical veganism has been treated as a protected belief.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that workplace social events are – or should be – voluntary options for employees’ enjoyment. Employees can always opt out for religious or other reasons and provided they do not suffer detrimental treatment for so doing,  their employer is unlikely to face a successful claim for discrimination because of religion and belief.

Come back tomorrow for Day 3 of our series which will look at the unintended consequences of work-related conversations during the Christmas Party.

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