Employers must practice what they preach under regulations governing religious rights

There are only 39 shopping days left to Christmas, but even more scary, it’s just a fortnight before new regulations come into force making it unlawful to discriminate against employees on the grounds of their sexual orientation or religious belief.

Sensible employers will already be putting in place the policies and systems necessary to ensure that they don’t fall foul of these rules, which on the whole make sound business sense. In an age of ultra-tight labour markets and a fierce war for talent, arbitrary discrimination is utterly pointless and self-defeating.

Unfortunately for employers, a lot of the detail has still to be worked out, and it’s likely that the new regulations will be challenged in court in the new year when trade unions, among others, trigger a judicial review of some of the exemptions under the regime.

The government has signalled that it is sympathetic to employers’ frustrations over the Byzantine system of rights and regulations that has built up in recent years. Last month, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, announced that the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission would be rolled up into a single body, provisionally entitled the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the new commission won’t be up and running until late 2006 at the earliest.

In the meantime, the grocery industry is likely to feature prominently in the case law generated by the new regulations - particularly those governing religious belief. There are two obvious danger areas for employers under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations, which come into effect on December 2.

The first concerns the behaviour of fellow employees. A devout employee who’s at the receiving end of behaviour they consider blasphemous could well be able to bring a successful harassment suit against their employer. Frankly, employers who allow church, mosque or synagogue-goers to be bullied on account of their faith deserve everything they get, but does your employee handbook consider whether it’s OK to take the name of the Lord in vain when you drop a case of baked beans on your foot?

Even more worrying is the question of how you handle Sabbath-day working.

According to leading employment lawyer Richard Lister, it could be unlawful to pay Sunday premiums. For example, a devout Christian who felt they could not work Sundays might argue that they were being unfairly excluded from the premium-rate payments. A Seventh-Day Adventist, whose Sabbath falls on Saturday, might be able to argue that not working that day is an essential religious practice - and therefore the fact that they are not being paid more to work Saturdays is discriminatory.

As they say on TV, don’t try this at home - if in doubt, get professional advice about how the new regulations will affect your organisation.

In the meantime, a good place to look for further information is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s website. The CIPD has produced an excellent guide to the new regulations, see www.cipd.co.uk/ changeagendas/ for details.

Next month, I’ll be looking at the impact of the new regulations on employers with regard to employees’ sexual orientation.

By the way, December 1 is also the date when it becomes a criminal offence to use a hand-held mobile phone when you are driving. And although it’s predominantly going to be individuals who are prosecuted, employers who ‘cause or permit’ the offence will also be liable.

n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management