Do clever people need special protection at work?

6 Feb 2020 By Navi Atwal and Amy Leech

Navi Atwal and Amy Leech ask whether highly intelligent workers should be legally protected from discrimination

The terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ are often used to label individuals deemed to be more intelligent than others. Dr Sonja Falck, psychology lecturer at the University of East London, has suggested that victims of ‘anti-IQ’ slurs should benefit from the same legal protections against discrimination afforded to other minorities.

In an employment context, the Equality Act 2010 protects disadvantaged groups who have protected characteristics (such as race, sex and disability) from discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace. Currently, high IQ is not a recognised protected characteristic.

One issue with the suggestion raised by Falck is, if high IQ was a protected characteristic, how would an individual qualify? A benchmark figure could be set, but given the abstract nature of the concept of intelligence, this could fluctuate day to day. Would someone need to have a proven high IQ for a prolonged period (akin to the definition of disability) to be protected? It is also unlikely those committing the discrimination will be aware of an individual’s exact IQ, and therefore protection of perceived high IQ would also need to be considered.

Being called a geek or nerd does not necessarily correlate to having a high IQ. For example, a computer gamer may be called a nerd or a geek, but this does not mean they necessarily have a high IQ.

Even if the difficulties with determining IQ are overcome, problems arise with the argument that someone with a high IQ would be treated less favourably than someone with a low IQ. It seems unlikely someone with a high IQ would be passed over for promotion or would be dismissed based on intelligence. It is more likely someone with a low IQ would be disadvantaged in these situations. This raises questions as to whether those with a low IQ should be afforded protection instead.

The suggestion also raises questions around what other insults could be protected. For example, cases have been presented to tribunal relating to someone being called ‘fat’ and ‘ginger’ (which were not deemed to be protected). Some may argue these characteristics are more in need of protection than high IQ

Falck states that derogatory anti-IQ slurs are as offensive as some of the worst homophonic, racial and religious slurs. While unacceptable and hurtful to the recipient, this does not make the comments discriminatory. Employers should be acting to prevent all types of bullying and discrimination through adequate policies – anything offensive or unpleasant should be nipped in the bud before it becomes more serious.

Despite intelligence not currently being protected, and the issues around whether it should or could be protected, employees mistreated at work because of their IQ have recourse through other legal means – a claim for breach of contract, for example, because of a breach of trust and confidence, and/or personal injury claims. There is also the possibility that repeated anti-IQ comments significantly affect an individual’s mental health, which could then fall under the legal definition of a disability.

Widely held popular opinion often highlights where a change is needed, and there is little evidence to suggest our society is at the stage of people wanting to outlaw geek or nerd. Some parts of society even embrace such terms, with these often seen in a positive light on social media. Ultimately, employers should be following their own policies and procedures if concerns are raised about anti-IQ insults.

Navi Atwal and Amy Leech are employment solicitors at Shoosmiths

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