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?

2 Responses to “Going green makes employer see red”


  1. 1 LawGeek October 14, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Very interesting scenario. But common sense has to prevail here. I’m not a fan of the slippery slope argument, but this is one very slippery slope for employers.

    If being environmentally friendly is a protected ground on the same level as religion, that really opens up the floodgates. On that front alone, what are employers going to have to do in order to accommodate a green worker? Will it have to buy him a transit pass? Will it have to provide bicycles to workers? There are so many scenarios here, it boggles the mind.

    And if being environmentally friendly is a protected ground, what else could be? What if I work at Canadian Tire, and come out and say that the colour red is against my “philosophy” and the employer has to remove it from my daily duties? That’s a silly example, of course, but let’s be honest — so is saying that being environmentally friendly is a philosophy that has to be accommodated by employers.

    Protecting the environment is a laudable goal. But that’s all it is. The courts would be wise to stay totally clear of this topic, dismiss this case and set a common sense precedent.

    • 2 eudaimonia_man November 19, 2009 at 4:21 pm

      A reasonable accommodation might be that the employer accepts the employee will use public transportation between work sites, rather than use a car or taxi. One of my previous employers did just this. I would really appreciate it if my employer would go so far as to alter my start time slightly so that I can use public transportation — a two-and-a-half hour journey rather than a 45 minutes by car. I am willing to give the time (and absorb the added cost) to avoid pumping 14 litres of petrol into the atmosphere as exhaust fumes.

      Providing a transit pass, or bike, would be reasonable if the job would have come with a company car. Many employers provide secure lockers andshowers for cycling employees — not what I would think of as a necessary accommodation, but good employee relations and wellness practice. Plenty of other employers offer a yearly transit pass scheme and bike loans with no interest and group discounts.

      As for legitimate “philosophies,” this case hinged on the individual’s belief system/value set about how to care for the planet that supports the life upon it. The fact this set of beliefs/values happens to coincide with what many call common sense, or even science, is immaterial. This individual has made significant lifestyle choices based on those beliefs/values — an important factor distinguishing him from those that simply recognize green living is a good thing in general.

      As for seeing red as wrong, it doesn’t strike me that one could frame that as an element of a coherent and consistent set of values/convictions about what is the right way to live in the world. If you can demonstrate such, maybe there’s a case. But the slope ain’t so very slippery as you might suggest.


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