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Half of vegans feel discriminated against at work

Nearly a third of the UK’s vegans have felt harassed at work or unfairly treated due to their veganism.

That’s according to research that also says nearly half of employers don’t do anything to accommodate vegan requirements at work; and roughly three-quarters of employers say that vegans should just focus on their work and keep their beliefs to themselves.

In a survey of 1,000 vegan employees and 1,000 employers conducted by Crossland Employment Solicitors, the firm discovered that nearly half (45%) of employees questioned have felt discriminated against by employers, while 31% have felt harassed at work or unfairly treated due to their veganism, (rising to 36% amongst millennials).

Nearly half (48%) of the employers surveyed admitted that they don’t do anything to accommodate vegans such as vegan food in the canteen or supplying toiletries free from animal testing.

The study found discrimination between how vegetarians and vegans are treated, with 78% of employers saying they do cater for vegetarians’ dietary beliefs or requirements.

Amongst vegan employees:

  • only 18% said their staff café offers vegan options with some claiming to also ‘feel pressured to fit in with limited menu choices at work functions’
  • 96% have to sit on leather furniture at work
  • 86% are only given the choice to wash their hands in the office with soap that’s tested on animals, and
  • a mere 6% are provided with a vegan uniform free from leather and wool

Of those employers who do accommodate vegans, nearly a third (32%) said it’s costly or can be difficult to cater for vegans and 21% said it’s risky in case they get it wrong.

Keep your beliefs to yourself

The vast majority (94%) of bosses said it’s wrong for vegans to push their beliefs onto others in the office. Nearly three-quarters (71%) said they should just focus on their work, while 13% said such behaviour can be distracting to other employees. Some vegans also said they had been specifically told not to discuss their beliefs with colleagues, or to tell customers.

Genuine vegans?

One vegan employee commented: ‘some of my colleagues make disparaging comments about fads’. Nearly a quarter (24%) of employers believe that most of their employees or friends who have chosen to be vegan as a lifestyle choice have done so because it’s fashionable, to help them to lose weight or to look good. Only 63% think their vegan friends are ‘genuine vegans’ due to animal or environmental concerns.

Lack of understanding of the law

While 3% of bosses said they wouldn’t hire someone if they knew they were vegan, which is likely to be contrary to the Equality Act 2010, the survey also found that almost three-quarters of UK employers (74%) do not realise that under the Equality Act 2010 ‘philosophical beliefs’ are a protected characteristic in employment law.

This is likely to include veganism. A vegan worker commented that ‘other faith groups are exempt from work clashing with their faith but vegans aren’t’.

There was also widespread misunderstanding amongst employers about what to do if an employee was to express negative opinions about vegan beliefs in the office or to a customer – over half of bosses (51%) said a belligerent employee should be dismissed compared to 44% who said an informal warning is enough.

Such comments put the employer and a belligerent employee at risk of a potential claim of harassment because of philosophical belief and a formal disciplinary procedure would normally follow. 

Beverley Sunderland, Crossland’s Managing Director, said: “Our research shows that prejudiced attitudes towards vegan workers is endemic among British employers and a lack of understanding as to the potential impact of the Equality Act 2010.

“Veganism is likely to be covered if a vegan has a genuinely held belief and not just an opinion or viewpoint. That belief must be ‘cogent, serious and applies to an important aspect of human life or behaviour and be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights.’ For example, case law has already decided that belief in man-made climate change is a philosophical belief and there is little doubt that veganism will be similarly treated when it comes before the tribunal later this year in Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports.

“We’d advise that employers need to be taking such beliefs seriously and acting against those who are derogatory about vegans. After all, if an employee was mocking someone’s religion, their sex or their race, an employer would not hesitate to take serious action’. Of course, establishing that an employee has a philosophical belief is only the first step – they would then have to show that any adverse treatment was because of that belief.

“However, as with all discrimination cases, if an employee can establish less favourable treatment then the burden of proof is reversed, and it is for the employer to show that the treatment was not because of the employee’s belief.”