Can an employer be liable for direct discrimination on grounds of a philosophical belief they didn’t know an employee held?
Fortunately, for employers, in the case of Streatfeild v London Philharmonic Orchestra Ltd (ET/2390772/2011), the Employment Tribunal decided no.
Ms Streatfeild was the first violinist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO). She was suspended on full pay for six months after she sent (along with a few other employees of LPO) a letter to a national newspaper, which criticised the action of the LPO in extending an invitation to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. The letter sparked substantial media coverage. The LPO found that this letter (and the ensuing press coverage) caused it serious reputational damage as well as having negative effects on the relationship between the orchestra and its’ patrons, musicians and the general public.
Ms Streatfeild brought a claim to the employment tribunal, alleging that the decision to suspend her was direct discrimination, harassment and/or victimisation because of her belief in humanism.
The tribunal accepted that humanism was a philosophical belief and so capable of protection by the Equality Act 2010 and they also accepted that Ms Streatfeild genuinely held a belief in humanism.
However, it decided that Ms Streatfeild’s claim for direct discrimination had no reasonable prospects of success because her employers did not know (and could not be expected to know) about her belief, it therefore could not be said that they had discriminated against her because of such belief. Employers cannot be expected to know of hidden beliefs held by their employees but, should be aware of how widely the definition of “philosophical belief” can be interpreted.
It seems that the LPO did not raise a similar argument in relation to the allegation of harassment and therefore the Tribunal could not consider whether this should also be struck out on the same basis. However, the Tribunal did reach the view that Ms Streatfeild would face similar challenges demonstrating that she had been harassed or victimised and she was therefore ordered that she pay a deposit to continue with them.