At least four companies are facing legal action from pro-Brexit employees over alleged bullying in the office from Remain-backing colleagues. Lawyers are warning that the cases may merely be the first of a wave of similar legal actions.
Workers who backed Britain leaving the European Union during the referendum on EU membership held in June have reported experiencing hostile remarks, harassment and “cultural bullying” from Remain-supporting colleagues, The Telegraph has reported.
Consultancy firm PwC is currently advising four companies whose employees have lodged legal complaints over alleged bullying behaviour related to the referendum within the office and on social media.
One Eurosceptic employee who did not wish to be named but had recently left his job at a public body told the Financial Times that the level of anti-Brexit sentiment in the office had been a deciding factor in his departure.
“The anger [about Brexit] was such that people temporarily abandoned the normal rules of conduct,” he said. “The intellectual harassment that I experienced and the open hostility to my Brexit stance made me feel like an ideological outsider and it alienated me completely from my colleagues. It was like cultural bullying.”
Lawyers with the consultancy have warned that other businesses may also be at risk of legal action. Unlike general elections, in which employers are usually neutral, many companies advised their workers on how to vote in the referendum, potentially leaving them open to legal challenges by workers who took the opposite stance and missed out on promotion.
“Since Brexit we have been in a state where feelings are running high,” said Ed Stacey, head of the employment law team at PwC.
“Employees have felt differently from how they may do during a general election because there has been so much intervention from employers.
“Very rarely would you ever see employers campaigning on which way to vote.”
Under the Equality Act, ironically thanks to an EU directive, employers can be taken to tribunals by workers who feel they have been discriminated against in the workplace because of their “philosophical beliefs”.
Over the past five years, the clause has been used by workers who feel discriminated against because of their stance on fox-hunting, climate change and support for democratic socialism, amongst other positions.
Political allegiance isn’t covered under the “philosophical beliefs” clause, but as the referendum cut across traditional party lines and many employers chose to take a side, support for one side or other may qualify under the clause.
Chris Fisher, employment partner at Mayer Brown, said that given how widely “philosophical belief” cases had previously been interpreted by tribunals, “I would not be surprised if strongly held EU/non-EU beliefs could qualify”.
Meanwhile, Relate, the counselling service, has also reported that the referendum result, which split the country 52-48 percent in favour of leaving the European Union, has taken a toll on familial relationships.
Elaine Taylor, a counsellor with Relate in Cambridge, said that all her clients spontaneously raised the referendum as an issue following the vote.
“If you are OK in your family dynamic then it’s fine. But if you are already at war over other issues, it can be just another nail in the coffin,” she said.
“Every one of my clients mentioned Brexit as an issue in the sessions that followed the vote. It wasn’t the reason people were coming in, but it added to their stress and put more pressure on relationships.
“This can certainly cause deep and long-lasting rifts, especially if these kinds of debates are not managed well,” she said.