Employment law is rarely clear-cut. If you had asked most people what their understanding of veganism was before January 2020, they would probably have told you that it was the decision to avoid eating anything that contained animal products.
Better informed people might have extended this to also avoiding wearing or using any animal product, for example, leather.
But an employment tribunal has unequivocally ruled that ethical veganism has such an all-encompassing impact on the lives of those who practice it, that it is in fact a philosophical belief.
The case that triggered this finding was that of Jordi Casamitjana who claimed he was unfairly sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports after he disclosed that it invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing.
Mr Casamitjana said the decision to sack him was because of his veganism, while The League Against Cruel Sports argued that he was dismissed for gross misconduct.
At a preliminary hearing the tribunal needed to determine whether ethical veganism was a philosophical belief that would qualify it as a protected characteristic under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 and whether Mr Casamitjana practised ethical veganism.
The tribunal took into account, not just Mr Casamitjana’s choices in food, clothing and products, but the fact that he would not allow non-vegan food in his home, avoided associating with people who were non-vegans; would not attend a social gathering where non-vegan food was served; avoided financial products that invested in pharmaceutical companies that test on animals; would not visit a zoo or any form of spectacle with live animals; avoided sitting on leather seats or holding leather straps; refused to use new banknotes that are made using animal products; and would walk, rather than use public transport to avoid accidental clashes with insects or birds.
On deciding that ethical veganism was a philosophical belief Employment Judge Postle concluded: “I am therefore satisfied and find it easy to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence before me that ethical veganism is capable of being a philosophical belief and thus a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.”
So what does all of this mean for employers who have vegan employees?
Firstly, we must note this is a rare case with a devout ethical vegan which is not the same as a person choosing to try veganism in Veganuary.
The Equality Act lists nine protected characteristics protecting employees from discrimination, harassment and victimisation because of religion, religious belief or philosophical belief.
In practice, discrimination claims most commonly arise in relation to recruitment, dismissal and job duties.
Depending on the circumstances of your employee, true ethical veganism should be treated just the same as any other protected characteristic.
When recruiting, clearly convey at the outset what is required of an applicant to avoid misunderstandings.
A job applicant might ask to opt-out of certain duties due to their belief in ethical veganism. You should consider a request carefully but, if there is a good business reason for refusing the request, you are entitled to do this.
For example, if a supermarket worker refused to handle any non-vegan product, it could be argued that this was an essential part of the role and opting out of it would disrupt business and create too much extra work for other employees.
The key is to be fair, reasonable and transparent and to treat ethical veganism just as you would any other protected characteristic.