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CSR head’s tribunal win sparks debate on ‘beliefs’

October 2009

A corporate responsibility practitioner has aroused attention in Britain after a ruling that he was unfairly sacked because of his evangelical stance on sustainability.

Tim Nicholson, former head of sustainability at the property investment company Grainger, claims he was made redundant by the FTSE 250 business in July 2008 because of his hard-line climate change views, which were so strongly held that they were on a par with religious convictions.

Last month an employment tribunal ruled in his favour, concluding his views amounted to a ‘philosophical belief in climate change’ – giving him the same legal protection against discrimination that applies to religious beliefs. Grainger intends to appeal against the decision.

The ruling, the first of its kind, stems from a 2007 change to UK employment law allowing ‘philosophical belief’ to be protected alongside religious belief – provided it is ‘worthy of respect in a civilized society’.

Nicholson told the tribunal he had been unfairly dismissed because his sustainability views conflicted with the ‘contempt for the need to cut carbon emissions’ shown by other managers.

He had clashes with colleagues, including a row over a decision to fly a worker from London to Ireland to collect the chief executive’s BlackBerry. In addition, he said his attempts to obtain information from which to develop a carbon management strategy had been blocked.

Judge David Sneath said Nicholson, who now works in the charitable sector, ‘has certain views about climate change and acts upon those views in the way in which he leads his life’. He considered Nicholson’s beliefs went beyond mere opinion.

His solicitor, Shah Qureshi, head of employment law at the legal firm Bindmans, said the case ‘will clarify the law for the ever-increasing numbers of people who take a philosophical stance on the environment and climate change’.

However, Mallen Baker, director of the Business Respect consultancy, said both the judgment and Nicholson’s stance were regrettable. ‘If you’re the head of sustainability for a company, it’s your job to persuade and influence across that company. Jumping up and down because a worker was flown to Ireland to collect a BlackBerry is understandable, but it is self-indulgent if it serves to isolate you from the company.

‘If you decide your company will either never “get it”, or not from you, then by all means leave. Find a company that you can work with. But to go to an employment tribunal on the grounds that belief in climate change is on the same level as religious belief is unhelpful in the extreme.’

Grainger is the UK’s largest listed residential landlord, with £2.3billion ($3.8bn) of assets under management. It recently published its first standalone CSR report, which made little mention of climate change.



Tim Nicholson | UK & NI Ireland | CSR

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