XpertHR offers employers guidance on handling climate change protest issues

XpertHR has produced a guide to answer employers’ common questions about climate change protests, including handling walk-outs and employees struggling to get to work as a result of disruptions.

Climate change protests often involve crowds taking to the streets and employers are also faced with the novel situation of their staff protesting about environmental issues during working hours.

On 20th September 2019 over 200 demonstrations took place across the UK. Organisers said it was the biggest-ever environmental protest the UK had ever seen, with 300,000 to 350,000 people taking part[i]. At the beginning of October Extinction Rebellion held two weeks of protests in London[ii].

Jo Stubbs, XpertHR’s global head of content product strategy, says: “Widespread environmental protests, such as recent Extinction Rebellion rallies, are having an everyday impact on employers. Organisations need to be prepared for dealing with disruption as a result of climate change protests.

“Generally, a common-sense approach can resolve most issues; however, it’s important to understand the legalities around what employees can and can’t do and what employers can reasonably expect in terms of their behaviour on this issue.”

XpertHR offers the following advice on four common employer questions around climate change protests:

How can employers handle climate change walkouts?

Strictly speaking, employers are entitled to treat walkouts as unauthorised absence. Employers could take disciplinary action against an employee who is absent without leave in these circumstances. However, while the nature of some businesses necessitates a strict approach to walkouts, the company may wish to take a more flexible approach for the sake of maintaining good employee relations.

What about employees promoting their beliefs on the environment and climate change at work?

There is a difference between an employee expressing their views about the environment to colleagues in the normal course of their working day and someone running an unsanctioned “campaign” about environmental issues during working hours. In many cases, a quiet word to an employee who is behaving in this way is all that is needed. However, disciplinary action might be required if this has no effect.

What if staff struggle to get to work because of disruption caused by climate change protests?

In principle, employers can refuse to pay employees during periods when they are not at work because climate change protests have disrupted their journey. However, it is probably best to take a pragmatic approach when people are struggling to get to work because of disruptions to public transport. Providing temporary flexible working arrangements or asking employees to take the time they have missed as annual leave are two options.

Do we have any control over our employees’ participation in environmental protests outside working time?

Under the the Human Rights Act 1998, employees have rights to the freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This means that employers need to find a balance between looking after their own interests and not unduly interfering with what employees are doing outside work.

An organisation might, for example, decide to take disciplinary action against an employee who acts unlawfully during a protest, particularly if wide media and social media exposure is involved. They could argue that the employee’s behaviour has brought them into disrepute and damaged their business.

For more advice on climate change concerns click here.

For more information on XpertHR visit: www.xperthr.co.uk


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/20/enough-biggest-ever-climate-protest-uk

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/02/specialist-police-assigned-extinction-rebellion-rallies