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Going green makes employer see red

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Many of us are trying to be more conscious of the environment and going “green” is becoming more popular. Recycling, energy conservation, carbon footprint — these are on everyone’s minds as we try to reduce the effect we have on the environment. Some make token gestures to save the environment and others are more hardcore to the point where they radically change the way they live their life. But can being an environmentalist get you fired?

Tim Nicholson, 42, made news in the United Kingdom recently for launching an unfair dismissal lawsuit against his former employer, property company Grainger. Nicholson was Grainger’s head of sustainability for two years before he was let go in 2008. He held strong beliefs about climate change and adopted an eco-friendly lifestyle that included making his house carbon efficient, buying local produce and avoiding air travel.

However, when Nicholson tried to apply his “green” philosophy to his job, he met with resistance from Grainger executives. He tried to set up a carbon management system but was denied access to the data he needed and Grainger’s CEO ridiculed Nicholson’s environmental concerns. At one point, the CEO even flew a Grainger employee from London to Ireland just to drop off his BlackBerry.

After Nicholson was made redundant, he claimed he was fired because of his environmental beliefs. In a pre-hearing review, a judge granted him permission to continue with his claim under six-year-old U.K. legislation that protects philosophical beliefs from discrimination. Grainger disputed the decision, arguing Nicholson’s beliefs on climate change were scientific, not philosophical, and didn’t warrant protection under the legislation.

Most people agree climate change is a problem the planet faces, but some don’t take it as seriously as others. For someone who takes it seriously enough to change their lifestyle, does that qualify it as a belief that should be protected from discrimination? If that person is mocked at work or fired because of that belief, is it grounds for a human rights violation or wrongful dismissal under our own human rights and employment laws? If not, how do we determine what is a philosophical belief that deserves protection from discrimination?

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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