It's only right to respect others' wrong views

Religion and belief are protected characteristics under the UK Equality Act. In theory, it’s a simple and obvious enough idea: someone should not be discriminated against or harassed at work because of what they believe.

In practice, this can present challenges of a logistical or practical nature; it might be that your belief (or lack of it) impacts someone else – perhaps meaning they are asked to change the schedule they work, the language they use, the clothes (or jewellery) they wear, or the food they keep in the communal fridge.

The fundamental complication though, is that your colleagues may believe something quite different to you, and their beliefs are equally protected.

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Sometimes beliefs will be utterly polarised.

While not necessarily religious in nature (though they could be aligned to the position of some faiths) gender critical beliefs have been accepted as protected beliefs in the employment tribunals.

We have experience, at Byrne Dean, of investigating disputes between supporters of gender critical views and trans rights supporters.

Even the conversation about the conversation can be difficult: the nature of religion and belief is that it is a belief in a truth, and even the expression of a different position can itself be felt as hostile or offensive.

Some gender critical beliefs may question the existence or identity of trans people.

One option for employers is to prevent conversations happening at all where there might be clashes. 'We don’t talk about that here'. Superficially, this solves it.

And some, like Basecamp, attempted to ban societal and political discussion.

Our position, for decades, has been that people don’t want to work in a sterile environment like that, and most workplaces are striving to create environments where individuals can be themselves and feel like they belong.

And where my belief is intrinsically interwoven with my identity, (who I am, the clothes I wear, the hours I work, the pronouns I use, or the name I wish to be called) then outlawing the expression of that belief might require me to be, well, less myself. 

Perhaps a better approach would be to attempt to cultivate a culture where polarised positions can co-exist healthily, and support people to have more skilful interactions around difficult areas with sensitivity and awareness.

At its heart it’s about respect and, most specifically, respect for difference. Inclusion is about understanding that other people are different to you.

When I first started doing respect at work training, a fairly young graduate recruit in a bank, who had sat quietly through my session not saying much, came up to me at the end and asked "So, what you are saying is that I have to respect people who are wrong?" (They had in their mind creationism.)

To which I replied "Yes. I think that’s pretty much it: 'Wrong' is subjective. They think you’re wrong too. That’s okay.”  

If we can take a mutually respectful position on other people’s ('wrong') views, and truly have more empathy for the hurt we can cause by disputing or debating them in the assertion of our truth, we can navigate a pathway.

The conversations probably won’t be easy; we may feel the other person’s different position is a personal affront, we may stumble and misstep and, yes, it may sometimes be wiser not to go there at all.

But if everyone enters into it with good intent and stays in it with compassion and kindness – there’s usually a way through.

Everybody must recognise their accountability for the environment they’re working in, and particularly the importance of leaders as role models.

Alison Best is co-head of training at workplace behaviour and culture specialists Byrne Dean