Israel-Hamas conflict | As tense discourse about the Middle East rises in the workplace, how should employers respond?

As tense discourse about the Middle East rises in the workplace, how should employers respond?

It can be difficult for any employer to know how to respond to a global crisis or conflict in another region. Businesses often fear that siding with one party could automatically rebrand them or isolate customers or clients that don’t align with that sentiment.

But where are the boundaries when it comes to employees voicing their opinion? The recent outbreak of war in Israel has shed light on a myriad of questions around how employers should respond, if at all, to staff expressing their own perspective, sometimes at work itself, but usually on social media. These scenarios prompt questions around where lines are drawn between employees being ambassadors for your company and them having their own personal identity.

In one case, a Citibank employee, Nozima Husainova, was fired after writing a post on Instagram that read “no wonder Hitler wanted to get rid of them”, endorsing the Holocaust and the mass murder of Jewish people. The post was written in response to a bomb at the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza, which killed hundreds of Palestinians.

Another story outlines how a tube driver was suspended by Transport for London after leading a chant saying “free Palestine” on a London Underground tube as protestors boarded the train to go to a pro-Palestinian demonstration.

A similar scenario occurred in Sydney, Australia where Jewish community leaders are calling for a train worker to be sacked following the employee playing a song that was reportedly pro-Palestinian in nature whilst protestors were on the way to a rally.

While multiple Hollywood celebrities have spoken out on the conflict. Stars including Jamie Lee Curtis and Amy Schumer, signed a letter from the Creative Community For Peace – a non-profit entertainment industry organisation – voicing “support for Israel and condemning Hamas”.

Under the Human Rights Act 1998 “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, however this right is subject to other laws which restrict certain conduct at work, but restrictions on political expression still exist.

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Essentially, if staff want to express their political opinions, they have a right to. However, if they express these opinions violently, expresses opinions in a way that goes against their role or your business’ values, then this may breach that right.

However, there’s an obvious difference between expressing opinions at work or in one’s own private life and online, and this is where there is some grey area. It will never be clear cut in how businesses should respond to their staff expressing their political views. Therefore, employers need to approach incidents on a case-by-case basis, looking at what statement employees made, whether their opinion aligns with the company’s values or policies, and if it was expressed in a violent way.

Employment experts weigh in

HR and employment law chiefs spoke to HR Grapevine about the sensitive issue.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, commented: “The escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas has dominated the news headlines and stirred up strong emotions and opinions over the last couple of weeks. With protests in many cities, employers may find themselves dealing with fallout from employees making inappropriate comments online or in the workplace regarding the conflict.

“Political discussion in the workplace is something that needs to be managed carefully, balancing peoples’ right to free speech, protected beliefs, and appropriate workplace behaviour. For employees whose family members are directly impacted by the conflict, emotions are even more heightened.

“No employer wants to be seen as the ‘thought police’. However, it is management's responsibility to ensure that all employees are respected and treated equally. Both background and belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, so failing to do so could result in a discrimination claim.

“Employers should keep an eye out and make sure any political discussion remains respectful. Ensure that all employees are treated equally and always call out inappropriate or insensitive comments, reminding employees to be respectful of each other’s backgrounds and beliefs. If anything crosses the line then deal with it immediately, in line with your company’s policies and procedures.

“Whatever position an employee has on the subject, it is important that the workplace remains a professional environment. Every person has the right to feel comfortable in their workplace and there should be zero tolerance towards any offensive, bullying, or harassing behaviour.

“Regardless of whether employees are directly impacted by the conflict, many people are experiencing higher than usual levels of stress and anxiety because of the ongoing news coverage. As such, offering an employee assistance programme (EAP) can provide professional support to assist employees’ mental health and emotional well-being. Similarly, creating a culture of open communication, whereby employees are encouraged to raise and discuss any concerns they may have, both in their professional and personal lives, can improve satisfaction and motivation.”

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons, said: “Most employers would want to create a work environment which encourages open debate or one that embraces different schools of thought. When it comes to sensitive topics such as politics, it can be difficult to strike a balance that protects employees’ freedom of speech and expression, set against the need to protect all employees from discrimination and harassment, as well as preserve harmony in the workplace.

“Many businesses may have included specific wording around political debate in their HR policies, but we often find it varies wildly from business to business. Often businesses will fall back on acceptable workplace behaviour policies.

“If you do have policies in place, employers shouldn’t hesitate to step in and remind staff about what is expected of them. We have also encountered organisations that have reporting structures in place that allow staff to highlight incidents of discrimination or harassment related to political matters.”

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