Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


‘I was obstructed from doing my job properly’

December 2009

In the aftermath of a potentially groundbreaking legal decision on discrimination and climate change beliefs, EP talks to Tim Nicholson, the CSR head at the centre of the case

Tim Nicholson is hardly a household name in Britain, but he’s certainly familiar to many more people than he was a few weeks ago. When an employment tribunal recently ruled that the former sustainability officer could sue the property investment company Grainger for unfair dismissal on the grounds that he had been sacked for holding ‘philosophical beliefs’ on climate change that were akin to religious convictions, the nation sat up and took notice (EP11, issue 5, p1).

The amiable but earnest 42-year-old, who now works for the Campaign for Greener Healthcare charity in Oxford, feels his case will have implications for corporate responsibility professionals who are ‘obstructed’ from doing their job properly but may be ‘nervous about being vocal about it’.

Nicholson was not always a CSR professional. In fact, his job as head of sustainability at Grainger was his first such role — previous to his 2007 appointment, he worked for Grainger’s residential property development department, and before that was a chartered surveyor.

As the ‘turning point’ in his awareness of the scale of climate change, Nicholson cites a fundraising trip he and his wife undertook in 2003 for the Red Cross charity: a journey, in a 50-year-old Morris Oxford car, from Oxford in the UK to Oxford in New Zealand. He says the adventure revealed to him the harsh affects of climate change on developing countries in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, but also the solutions on offer in New Zealand.

After returning to the UK and beginning work for Grainger, Nicholson began to feel disillusioned about his professional life: ‘The more I was learning about climate change and environmental issues, the more I felt that my day job was irrelevant. Here we were: the human race and civilisation threatened with disaster, and I was busily trying to get planning consents to build houses. I felt that I wanted to do much more, and get involved in the solutions to climate change.’

All this time, in lifestyle changes that would become important to Nicholson’s demonstrating his ‘philosophical belief’ in climate change, he and his wife had ‘eco-renovated’ their flat to become more energy efficient — and opened their home up to the public to show people how they could do likewise. He also gave up flying, changed his eating habits and made other ‘low-carbon’ choices.

Nicholson thought he had found an opportunity to be ‘more influential’ in environmental solutions when he was appointed head of sustainability at Grainger in September 2007. ‘I thought that would be an opportunity to make a difference on a wider scale [but] I felt that I was [soon] obstructed from doing my job properly,’ he says. Asked if, hypothetically, he would go back to Grainger, he says the ‘water that’s passed under the bridge’ would make it difficult for him to operate within the firm.

Nicholson remains convinced of the role of businesses in tackling climate change, however, and of the progress being made by many companies in this area. ‘It’s essential that we get both public and private sector to take action. There are an increasing number of companies that recognize the very positive reasons for embracing sustainability, and I think that number will continue to grow,’ he says. ‘However, I think there are still a disappointingly significant number of organizations that don’t yet understand the significance of the threat of climate change and the commercial benefits for actually doing something about it.’

And this is where, Nicholson hopes, his case can help. Although his stance has attracted some criticism from within the CSR profession, he feels the ground he has broken so far may lead to similar actions and embolden other sustainability practitioners. ‘Having set this precedent, it will reassure other people  that there is the potential of some legal protection to make sure they’re not discriminated against. I hope that, as a consequence, people will speak their mind on climate change where in the past they may have been nervous about being too vocal. I hope companies will respond to those views.’

Nicholson warns, however, that any legal action is ‘not to be undertaken lightly’. Since the decision allowing him to challenge his dismissal, he has been adamant that his ‘philosophical belief’ is different from religious conviction because it is based on scientific evidence. While man-made climate change may be empirically verifiable, Nicholson concedes that proving discrimination on the grounds of a belief in the ‘moral imperative’ to act on it will not be easy.

Nicholson has not won his case against Grainger; he has merely been allowed to proceed against the company on the grounds of discrimination against his views on climate change. Meanwhile, he continues to commit his time to fighting and raising awareness about climate change. In addition to his day job, he is currently helping to run the 10:10 climate change campaign’s healthcare strand, and is involved in a number of environmental campaigns and charities in Oxford and nationwide. The coming months will show whether he can belatedly affect action on climate change in the corporate world.

Tim Nicholson | UK & NI Ireland | Climate change

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