Visual expressions of culture and identity in shared spaces remain a challenge for our society; and so tensions can build when what is valued and prized by one section of the community might be regarded as threatening or diminishing to the other.
It is a testimony to employers’ commitment to promote good and harmonious working environments, built on the core value of affording dignity and respect to all their colleagues and employees, that the starkest examples of divisive symbolism in the workplace are, for the most part, no longer seen. We also know from the businesses and civic leaders who come to us for advice, that they share a strong concern not to cause any offence to customers who visit their premises.
It is where workplaces are also spaces shared by members of the public that difficulties can still arise or persist. In this context, over the past year we have seen issues involving the retail sector in relation to the marking of special events, celebrations or commemorations for their customers. We know that there is a wide variety of public displays which continue to cause tension, ranging from flags on shared public buildings, to signage using different languages and, perhaps surprisingly to some, even to the branding on some products in shops.
Such issues have centred on whether certain branded materials for sale or display in or around a store could amount to unlawful religious or political discrimination against shoppers who might claim to be offended by those displays. Conversely, a problem might arise when a shopper is offended by the absence or removal of a display in one store, which s/he knows is available or on display in another store.
We recognise that retailers are running highly competitive businesses and that their decisions about what products to stock and sell, and how to promote them, will focus on meeting customer demand and generating sales. Our advice is that such decisions must continue to be focused on the specific context of the businesses’ own situation.
For example, if the decision to market and sell products is made on normal commercial grounds, and the relevant stores are otherwise open and welcoming to all persons, then we would consider that a complaint of religious or political discrimination based solely on the branding or display of particular products is unlikely to be successful.
Of course, we recognise the sensitivity necessary in dealing with these matters and we have always recommended that businesses try to ensure that their premises are welcoming and harmonious environments for both workers and customers alike.
This advice applies equally not only to the potential tensions that exist within the “traditional divide” in the community in Northern Ireland, but to all religious beliefs and lawful political opinions, as well as to the other statutory equality grounds of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and age.
Shared spaces are created when a positive and determined choice is made to create a safe place in which people are encouraged to offer and receive respect, whatever their culture or identity.