From Israel to Poland, the folaut continues


The Israel Folau case is big because Israel Folau is big – literally, but more importantly metaphorically speaking. Folau, however, is just a tip of an iceberg if that analogy can be used with a Pacific Islander. Be that as it may, there is an increasing number of Folaus out there across the Western world we rarely hear of because they are not Folau. I have so far resisted writing about the Folau case because I can’t add anything that has not been already said, in most cases much better than I would have ever been able to, by dozens of good columnist and opinion makers. I still have no intention of writing about Folau, except to point out – not very originally either – that it’s not a particularly unusual case.

But I was certainly not expecting one to be unfolding in Poland, still a relatively conservative Catholic society – certainly in comparison to its significantly more secular European neighbours, though the differences have been shrinking fast over the past few decades since the advent of democracy (my translation):

Thomas [only the first name is used] until recently worked in one of the IKEA chain stores selling furniture. He lost his job when he refused to participate in a compulsory for all employees action promoting the LGBT movement (every worker was given an an article “LGBT+ inclusion is a responsibility of everyone of us”). To support his stance, Thomas cited his religious faith and quoted from Old and New Testament, which condemn homosexual acts and promoting sinful behaviour. As related by the Institute for Legal Culture “Ordo Iuris” [which is now representing Thomas], his response to his employer met with a positive reaction from his colleagues but several days later Thomas’ employment was terminated.

Now IKEA is responding to the Institute’s claims. “We assure that the foundations of our corporate culture are freedom of viewpoints, tolerance and respect for every person,” argues [spokesperson] Katarzyna Broniarek. “But in the circumstances where there exists a risk that person or dignity of other employees might be affected, we undertake actions, always in accordance with employment laws and our values. In this case, in our assessment, such┬ácircumstances were present.”

So don’t worry Israel, you’re not alone; even in the supposedly ultra-Catholic Poland quoting the wrong Bible verses can lose you your job.

This is of course a fascinating area of law and public policy: employers generally enjoy – as they should – the freedom to employ (and keep employing) whom they want, often based on and in accordance with explicit internal codes of conduct and other such documents. Except it is not an absolute freedom; every developed economy now has a range of anti-discrimination statutes on its books, which prohibit different treatment of employees or potential employees on the basis of factors like sex, race or sexuality. So people legally have to be treated the same even if the employer, for whatever reasons, bigoted or otherwise, would prefer to have a choice to do otherwise.

Whether discrimination based on religious or political views is also prohibited varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and often from circumstances to circumstances. Polish branch of IKEA maintains it’s committed to “freedom of viewpoints” or freedom of belief among its employees, which sounds good in principle, and until employees’ beliefs come into conflict with each other. Then some beliefs are clearly prioritised over others – in this case the feelings of LGBT employees (we assume for the sake of the argument that there were some in the particular IKEA store in which Thomas was working) take precedence over the religious beliefs of people like Thomas that homosexuality is a sin and should not be promoted. There does not seem to be any indicatios that Thomas was in any way uncivil or unprofessional in his dealings either with employees or customers who might be LGBT, merely that he does not believe, contrary to the pamphlet’s title, that LGBT+ inclusion is his responsibility too.

I don’t know what will happen in this case; whether, as the matter moves through the Polish courts, Thomas will be vindicated or IKEA confirmed in their right to require certain actions of all their employees. I do know, however, that conflicts like this are becoming more prevalent because businesses are increasingly moving beyond what should be, as many would argue, their only mission in life, namely to maximise the shareholder value by providing the best possible goods or services to all customers and clients, and are instead embracing a much more expansive vision of their place and role in society, which involves an active participation in policy debates and using their economic and marketing heft to try to achieve outcomes throughout community that have very little or nothing to do with their business. This is a phenomenon that someone has recently very aptly described as corporations becoming little governments, more and more intrusive into all aspects of their employees’ lives as well as trying to “nudge” everyone else they come into contact with either directly or through their outreach and advertising.

This, I’m afraid, is a feature, not a bug, as the world of business management too gets colonised by the products of our increasingly woke education systems, media and culture. In the past, we used to have “crusading” journalists – today everyone’s a crusader, or would be if the word “crusader” itself was not now also considered insensitive by the very same intellectual milieu which believes it’s everyone’s responsibility to support every next enlightened cause under the sun.

I miss the good old times when employees were required to be polite and helpful to everyone and businesses would compete to give me a good deal rather than a lecture on how to be a better person.