Brexit: Your Employer Wants Your Vote!

The Brexit debate has finally come to a head, with political parties, social media campaigns and newspapers everywhere seeking to influence our votes (including via flotilla, strangely) – and employers have been getting involved too!

A few companies – notably, JCB and JD Wetherspoon for Brexit, and Rolls Royce and Ford in camp Remain - have been informing their employees of their own views on Brexit, and influencing their vote on 23 June.

Although many will have discussed a potential Brexit at work in the last few months, most people would expect their employers to refrain from interfering with their political beliefs. Aside from it being rather intrusive for employers to suggest to employees how they should vote, there is at least an argument that it could cause legal problems too.

Some employees may feel that the conduct creates an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive” environment, which could amount to harassment. This is particularly the case for employees who are Non-British EU citizens, whose right to live and work in the UK may be affected by the vote. In essence, if their employers are advocating for a Brexit, non-British citizens may feel that they are unwelcome, particularly given the anti-immigration stance put forward by some Leave campaigners.

Companies also need to ensure their communications with staff in no way imply that they would suffer detriments for failing to vote in accordance with the company’s views (whether they are pro-Leave or pro-Remain). Recent case law has recognised that political views could be regarded as ‘philosophical beliefs’ for the purpose of religion or belief discrimination. If a belief regarding the UK’s membership to the EU qualifies as a philosophical belief, then any interference with that belief by the employer could amount to discrimination.

In short, whilst employers are free to have whatever stance they want on the referendum, they should allow employees to keep their votes to themselves. In some respects, it is a question of freedom of expression: employees (on both sides of the argument) should not feel that they are being prevented from stating their political beliefs in the workplace. Employers will have to find a careful balance between their own freedom of expression and that of their employees.

BDBF is a leading senior executive employment law firm.