Why employers need to get to grips with Veganism now

Figures from the Vegan Society suggest there are now 600,000 vegans in the UK, up from 150,000 just five years ago. In January, these numbers will swell, as motivated Britons sign up to “Veganuary” – or 31 days of eating a plant-based diet. But what, if anything, does the rise of veganism mean for employers?

The answer, as discussed in a recent Generali UK Employment Law Newsletter, is that it now “makes business sense to approach veganism as standard rather than alienate a growing group of potential talent”.

And with a landmark employment tribunal case in October 2019 set to decide whether veganism is protected under the Equality Act 2010, the time to act is now.

What the law says

"Religion or belief" is one of nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010.

The other protected characteristics are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

It is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably than others due to one of these characteristics, or to tell them to act in a way that goes against their beliefs.

What is not completely clear, however, is whether veganism is a protected characteristic or not. The answer may depend on what kind of vegan you are. Some vegans eat a plant-based diet for health reasons. But so-called ethical vegans also avoid all forms of animal exploitation, such as leather clothing and zoos.

It’s a distinction that looks set to be central to the employment tribunal due to take place in October this year. The plaintiff Jordi Casamitjana – a self-proclaimed ethical vegan – claims he was sacked from his job at the League Against Cruel Sports after raising concerns with colleagues that the animal welfare charity’s pension fund invested in companies that carried out animal testing.

However, the League Against Cruel Sports denies this, saying he was dismissed for gross misconduct.

Hannah Ford, Partner and Employment Law specialist at law firm Stevens & Bolton, said: “While veganism itself is not explicitly listed as a protected characteristic in UK equality legislation, people who follow a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons could argue that doing so is based on a ‘philosophical belief’, which is a protected characteristic.

“To be capable of protection under equality legislation, the belief must be genuinely held, be cogent and serious, and relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

“It is not difficult to envisage a tribunal finding that a belief in ethical veganism meets these tests.”

How to avoid discriminating against vegans

Even if veganism is not currently legally named as a philosophical belief, tolerance and respect are integral to a healthy workplace. Unfortunately, though, many vegans do feel discriminated against in the workplace.

Recent research from Crossland Employment Solicitors found that almost half of vegan employees have experienced discrimination, with 31% saying they had been harassed or treated unfairly at work.

Issues flagged in the research included that employees were encouraged to keep their views to themselves and to fit in at company functions where there were limited menu choices on offer.

Ford’s advice is, therefore, to start introducing vegan-friendly policies now to avoid potential discrimination claims – and to help vegan members of staff feel more comfortable at work.

She said: “As veganism becomes more prevalent, employers should be mindful of the increased risk of accusations from employees that they have been discriminated against in the workplace because they are vegan.

“To counteract this risk, employers should take steps to ensure that vegan employees are not treated less favourably or subject to criticism based on their beliefs, and that vegan options are catered for whenever food or drinks are provided. 

“Employers looking to accommodate vegan requirements at work may also wish to consider introducing wool-free uniforms, cruelty-free soap and non-leather furniture.”