Veganism is on the rise. With meat-free alternatives now occupying a much larger space on supermarket shelves, and a recent influx of fast food companies launching vegan options, there is an expectation for workplaces to follow suit.
However, if you’re not vegan yourself, understanding how best to accommodate employees who are can be a bit of a conundrum. Not only that, but with the recent revelation that ethical veganism qualifies as a protected belief, there’s a whole new layer of concern for employers.
Feeling out of your depth? Here’s what you need to know in regard to veganism in the workplace.
First, what is veganism?
Veganism is the practice of abstaining from consuming, wearing or otherwise using animal products. It is often seen as an extension of vegetarianism, with vegans not only eliminating meat from their diet but also all other animal-derived products, such as eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, honey and gelatin. Vegans will avoid animal-produced materials such as leather, fur and wool in favour of eco-friendly fabrics, and boycott any products tested on animals, opting instead for cruelty-free brands.
There is a degree of variation in what aspects of veganism ‘vegans’ adopt, as well as different motivations for forgoing animal products. Dietary vegans, for example, are vegan for health reasons, while ethical vegans are led by animal welfare and environmental concerns. Indeed, from a legal point of view, these differences are significant.
What legalities should employers be aware of?
From an employment law perspective, the primary concern for employers is avoiding allegations of discrimination. Until recently, unfair treatment towards vegans was a relatively unexplored area of equality law; however, following the outcome of a landmark discrimination case, ethical vegans can now rely on legal protection.
In Casamitjana v the League Against Cruel Sports, the claimant, an ethical vegan, argued that he had been unfairly disciplined and subsequently dismissed for disclosing that the company invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing. To determine whether discrimination had occurred, the Tribunal considered whether veganism was capable of amounting to a ‘philosophical belief’ – one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act (EqA) 2010. To do so, the belief in question must:
After applying the above test, the Tribunal concluded that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief, therefore entitling ethical vegans to protection from discrimination in the workplace. It’s important to note that the decision applies only to vegans who are ethically opposed to exploiting or otherwise harming animals – not those who adopt the lifestyle for dietary reasons. In fact, some months prior to this judgment, a Tribunal dismissed a claim for vegetarianism discrimination, finding that it did not clear all of the hurdles outlined above. In particular, it concluded that vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice rather than a ‘weighty and substantial’ aspect of human life.
So, what should employers be doing?
Making an effort to better accommodate employees – especially their protected needs – is never a bad idea. Not only is it the safest way to prevent any allegations of unfair treatment, but by making small adjustments and being mindful of people’s beliefs, you can cultivate a positive, supportive and considerate workplace culture (and in turn, promote engagement, productivity and retention).
Indeed, the Vegan Society stresses that, for vegans, “the practical manifestations of this philosophy are integral to expressing their identity”, so respecting employees’ dietary choices, being inclusive and respectful, and simply taking an interest can count for a lot.
From a practical perspective, the Vegan Society has issued some guidance on supporting veganism in the workplace to help employers consider and accommodate the needs of vegan employees. It identifies some simple ways do this, including:
The above measures are a step in the right direction; however, beyond these practical adjustments, employers must take a firm stance against bullying, harassment and victimisation directed towards vegans. With more at stake now that veganism has been confirmed to come under the scope of equality legislation, fostering a general attitude of respect, including intervening when comments or jokes about an employee’s veganism go too far is essential. One way of judging this is to ask whether individuals with other protected characteristics, such as certain religious values, would find similar remarks offensive.
Fundamentally, employers must be mindful that any decisions they make don’t discriminate, either directly or indirectly, against vegans. This means reviewing your existing policies and practices to examine how they may exclude vegans or place them at a disadvantage, as well as making sure that any negative attitudes or preconceived ideas about veganism don’t infiltrate your recruitment process. In fact, in a 2017 job advertisement for an Occupational Therapist, an NHS Trust in London stated that “OTs with vegan diets cannot be considered”. Needless to say, such stipulations should be avoided.
Still not sure you’re doing enough? Speak to your staff. As the Vegan Society points out, “vegans in employment are likely to be only too pleased to offer assistance with the development of workplace policies and practices.”
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