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Tips on avoiding discrimination

This week, a Northern Irish bakery lost its case in the Belfast Court of Appeal when trying to overturn a previous high profile ruling. You have probably read about it in the press: they refused to bake a cake ordered by a gay man, Mr Lee, on behalf of an LGBT voluntary group called Queer Space.

Back in 2014, the bakers, who are devout Christians and oppose the introduction of same-sex marriage, were asked to produce a cake by Mr Lee which had the words ‘Support gay marriage’ written on it. However, a few days after the order was taken, they informed Mr Lee that they could not fulfil it. They explained that the bakery was a Christian business and could not carry out any orders that were against their beliefs.

This could have been found to be in breach of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, in which sexual orientation is regarded as a protected characteristic. The bakers had argued that they were not discriminating against Mr Lee, but were just choosing not to bake anything that went against their beliefs.

This case shows the fine line between free speech and discrimination. The courts determined that the bakers’ free speech was not infringed, as baking a cake that supported gay marriage didn’t necessarily mean that they themselves supported gay marriage.

The case is a reminder for business owners of their HR obligations surrounding discrimination. From an HR perspective, it is clear that discrimination took place against Mr Lee. Here are our HR tips for employers on the subject:

  • Make sure that you are familiar with the legislation and have policies to ensure that you are compliant with it.
  • If complaints are made, make sure they are handled with the highest sensitivity, in line with your code of conduct & the equality acts.
  • Recognise that whilst ‘banter’ between colleagues may not infringe on such discrimination laws it can easily be pushed one step too far. If this happens, ‘banter’ will not be considered a justifiable excuse in the courts.
  • It is worthy to note that the key issue is not the intent of the person who is alleged to have discriminated, but the effect the behaviour has on the recipient.  What one person may accept, another may object.
  • And finally, as an employer you have a duty of care to your employees so be aware!

If you need any advice on how to stay the right side of discrimination law, don’t hesitate to get in touch with The HR Dept.