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Identity Politics, Values and Conflict in the Workplace - A Guide for Employers

People with different backgrounds, identities and experiences can be extremely valuable for a workforce. They result in new perspectives, broader understanding, and in most cases, a more well-rounded and inclusive team. However, the advantages of having people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs work together on a project can turn to disadvantages if the people themselves cannot get along.

There are many different ways that beliefs, values, or politics can come between people, especially at a time when people are increasingly motivated to share their ideas. A recent Sky Data poll showed that 75% of the general public feels that the UK has become more divided than ever citing factors like Brexit, Islamophobia and racism as sources of this division. The COVID-19 pandemic and the debate it has raised about vaccine efficacy can now be added to this list.

In this guide, we outline different methods of conflict resolution that can help to keep a team together and on the right track. We’ll also discuss the legal rights and responsibilities employers have to protect employees; the options available to avoid or suppress conflict; and how to deal with a disagreement that’s affecting work.

How do conflicts between employees commonly arise?

The best approach to conflict in the workplace is to prevent it before it arises. If you’re a manager, it’s important to pay attention to the conversations around you and be aware of any issues about which members of your team are sensitive.

In some industries, it won’t always be possible to avoid difficult topics because of the nature of your work. If there is a need to discuss sensitive topics of identity or political opinion, you should try to frame these discussions in terms of professional interest and establish parameters to ensure that conversations remain impersonal. It’s also important to implement policies whereby people can remove themselves from conversations that make them uncomfortable, without facing questions or attracting stigma.

There are many different issues about which people may be sensitive, but only some will have legal implications. For example, the Equality Act 2010 protects certain categories relating to age, race and religious belief, and in cases where conflict arises from identity there may be legal considerations. On the other hand, most political beliefs and expressions thereof are not protected by the Equality Act 2010.

To allow you to effectively take action against an employee who is discriminating against another (particularly when this discrimination is affecting work, but does not contravene the law) it’s important to have a diversity and inclusion policy.

What is a diversity and inclusion policy?

A diversity and inclusion policy contains an employer’s commitment to actions and strategies that will support the creation of a diverse workplace. This might mean hiring employees from different backgrounds or with different identities, ensuring that people from vulnerable groups have representation in positions of authority, taking efforts to close pay gaps, or, hiring a diversity officer to oversee these practices and address any issues.

Most companies will already have some form of diversity and inclusion policy and if employees have fallen out over an issue of identity or beliefs, it’s important to investigate the matter thoroughly and ensure that none of the parties involved have breached this policy. Having the policy is not the end of your responsibilities, as if you fail to enforce it or take action against those who breach it, you may be liable for legal consequences from an employee who has been discriminated against.

Disagreements between co-workers can often be seen as simple differences of opinion, but you must ensure that you aren’t dismissing serious concerns because of a misunderstanding of the conflict, or failing to enforce a company policy designed to protect vulnerable employees.

How can I tell when interpersonal conflict is affecting work?

To address conflict, it’s first important that you’re able to recognise it in its many forms. If one team member’s work has slipped in terms of quality, or they’ve become less punctual or reliable, this could be an isolated problem with that person, but it could also be the result of a conflict with another employee. Not every conflict will manifest as verbal arguments between colleagues and there are many more subtle signs that something is wrong.

Any of the following actions may be symptoms of an underlying conflict that has not been addressed:

  • Online harassment or bullying
  • Harassment or bullying in person
  • Exclusion from social groups, events or activities
  • Poor performance or punctuality, or more time taken off work
  • Decrease in positivity or mood
  • Personal use of the internet, email or work chats
  • Talking over people or ignoring them

This is not a comprehensive list, and the best way to understand when a conflict is affecting work performance is to have regular catch-ups with team members. You should build trust and make yourself available to discuss any challenges facing the team or affecting their work.

Alternatively, having a dedicated human resources (HR) representative to fulfil this function can be extremely valuable, but this only works if they have the power to make changes. If an HR representative is unable to initiate disciplinary action, or investigate employee conduct thoroughly, employees will likely lose trust in them and cease to report when personal conflicts are affecting their work.

What are the best conflict resolution strategies?

If you’re unable to prevent conflict from arising, it’s important to tackle it as early as possible. Communication is key to understanding the conflict and finding a resolution that will be suitable for all parties. If you sense that a conflict is becoming heated, or personal for members of your team, you should intervene at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent things from getting worse and to show that you’re taking the issue seriously.

In most cases, it will be best to talk to both parties separately initially, to get their view of the situation and understand what it will take to resolve the problem. It’s important to remain impartial during this process and not to minimise or dismiss any hurt feelings that have been caused. If it is appropriate, pursue an amicable resolution and ask the employees themselves how they would like to resolve the problem.

This latter step is not always appropriate - for example, if bullying or harassing behaviour is a factor in the conflict, it may do more harm than good to try and resolve the matter informally. Instead, you should consider taking disciplinary action against the offending employee.

Can an employee be fired for voicing a political opinion?

Sometimes, a conflict goes beyond a personal disagreement and results in harassment, bullying, or creating a toxic work environment. In these cases, you may consider taking disciplinary action against an employee, or seek to terminate their employment in the most serious cases. The types of behaviour that can result in disciplinary action are usually outlined in an employee’s contract or handbook, but some behaviours may even break the law.

The Equality Act 2010 lists several categories of protected characteristics - including race, age and religious belief - that are protected under the law, making discrimination against these groups unlawful. If you decide not to hire someone, or dismiss them, only because they belong to a protected group, this is against the law and often results in legal action being taken against employers. If you have a policy that bans employees from wearing religious or cultural symbols, this may also fall afoul of the law, unless you can demonstrate that your policy is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Belonging to a political party or holding a political opinion are not protected under the Equality Act 2010, but you can still be vulnerable to legal action on the grounds of unfair dismissal if you terminate an employee for the reason of their beliefs.

From a legal perspective, you may need to prove that the person’s conduct, rather than the political belief itself, was the reason for removing them from your company. There are many problems that strong political opinions can cause for a business that might justify a dismissal, not on the grounds of beliefs but behaviour. If an employee makes customers uncomfortable, for example, by expressing their opinion too forcefully or frequently, or there is any other clear detrimental impact to your business resulting from the person’s conduct, and this is a legitimate reason for dismissal.

The same is true internally; if an employee’s expression of their views results in harassment of a colleague, or if they are creating a hostile environment in the workplace, this could also be viewed as legitimate grounds for dismissal. It’s best to consult a legal expert on the specifics of your circumstances before making a decision. The more effectively you can demonstrate that poor conduct on the part of an employee is the reason for their dismissal, the better protected you will typically be from cases of unfair dismissal being brought against you.

If an employee is posting about their views on social media in a way that breaches company policies or could be viewed as bullying a co-worker, this can escalate a situation and require intervention from management. More information about creating and enforcing a social media policy can be found here.

Can an employee be fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine?

A political stance that has grown significantly in recent years is the opposition to vaccinations. This opinion has entered the mainstream conversation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the legal issues around this subject are yet to be tested.

Most employers will be eager to ensure that employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 and government guidance stipulates that employers should encourage their employees to obtain a vaccine to protect themselves and others, as more people return to the workplace. If an employee refuses, this can create serious conflict within a team as it risks the health of their colleagues, and potentially the business’ customers as well. However, the question that arises, is whether this is a legitimate reason to dismiss an employee?

In some circumstances, yes. The UK government has approved regulations stating that all care home workers must be vaccinated from 11 November 2021 (unless exempt), which means that employees could be dismissed for refusing the vaccination. Currently, this is the only law that mandates vaccination for certain types of workers, but the government has opened consultations on compulsory vaccination and further laws may be forthcoming.

It’s important to consult legal advice before you make any decisions, to ensure you and your business are protected.

How can Percy Hughes & Roberts help?

Conflict between team members is disruptive and affects both the productivity and mental well-being of your employees, so preventing it should be a priority for any team leader, manager or business owner. You also need to ensure that you resolve any issues that arise between colleagues in an amicable way, while protecting their rights and your company.

Percy Hughes & Roberts’ experienced team can help your business to understand the legal options available to help you remove a disruptive employee, or bring a conflict between colleagues to an end. Our employment law experts can help you to prepare employee contracts and policies to protect both your workforce and your company.

Our firm’s Head of Employment, Sarah Simcott, boasts years of experience and promises a confidential, friendly, and honest approach to all issues within the employment law field, particularly issues involving discrimination and harassment.

If you have any questions regarding conflict between employees based on identity issues, political views or even the COVID-19 vaccine, you can get in touch with us for expert advice. Contact a Wirral employment law lawyer today by calling 0800 068 3267or by completing the “Get in touch” form on this site.

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