Ask the panel

November 18, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I work at quite a small university. I originally felt comfortable with the people I work closely with, although there is a problem. One staff member is a practising Christian. He developed a range of screensavers using scriptural quotes. These are generally innocuous but his most recent one reads: "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination." I am uncomfortable, and feel that it is homophobic. However, I don't want to be intolerant of his faith or cause upset. What do I do?

* Our Equality Challenge Unit panellist answers: "The right to express freedom of thought, religion or belief must be balanced against actions that may amount to harassment or discrimination. Regardless of a person's private belief systems, comments or conduct that have the purpose or effect of violating another person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them could be considered harassment under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. An institution can be held vicariously liable if an employee discriminates against or harasses another on the grounds of religion, belief or sexual orientation.

"A tribunal considering a claim of religious harassment or harassment relating to sexual orientation would make an objective assessment of the effect the conduct would have on a 'reasonable person'. If, in the tribunal's view, the conduct would be offensive, frightening or in any way distressing to a 'reasonable person', it will amount to harassment."

* The Association of University Teachers panellist says: "Staff have the right to have religions and beliefs respected within the workplace, but that does not extend to causing offence to others on the grounds of sexual orientation or behaving contrary to the university's equal opportunities policy. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask your colleague to change the screensaver. If you do not feel comfortable doing so, or he is unwilling to change the screensaver, ask your manager to take action. The employer has a responsibility to ensure that staff are not harassed on the grounds of sexual orientation and should take appropriate steps. If necessary, seek support from your trade union and equalities officer or human resources department."

* Our lecturers' union Natfhe panellist says: "Your colleague is entitled to practise his religion but not in a way that causes offence to others, intimidates or is humiliating, and particularly not where it breaches the employer's responsibilities under the recent Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations. The best way to tackle this would be to have a quiet word with your colleague. If this is not possible, or is unsuccessful, approach your departmental union rep to have a quiet word. If that fails, then you should informally ask your line manager to intervene, drawing attention to the statutory obligations. You might wish to say that as these are new regulations they may wish to take advice from your human resources department who should certainly be aware of them."

Further advice is available at www.natfhe.org.uk and www.ecu.ac.uk

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist adds: "Your predicament appears to be more about human relations than industrial relations. You do not want to offend your colleague, but it is important to address the issue because the screensaver affects communal space. Perhaps you could discuss the matter with your colleague. If this isn't possible, discuss it with your line manager.

"Ultimately, your colleague needs to be informed that he is entitled to personal beliefs, and that they are respected, but he cannot impose aspects that are offensive to others."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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