In the wake of the negative publicity over their payment of tax in the UK, Starbucks finds itself facing more criticism following the Employment Tribunal’s recent decision that the company had discriminated against a dyslexic employee.

The case related to an employee, Meseret Kumulchew, who worked as a supervisor in the Starbucks Clapham branch. Her role included taking temperature readings from fridges, and water, at certain times within the branch. She was then required to add these details to a duty roster. Starbucks found that Ms Kumulchew had entered incorrect data and accused her of falsifying the records. The treatment and allegations Starbucks made against Ms Kumulchew is reported to have pushed her to the brink of suicide.

Ms Kumulchew took Starbucks to the Employment Tribunal alleging disability discrimination on the basis that her mistakes in recording the data were as a result of suffering from dyslexia, which meant that she had difficulty with reading and writing.

The Tribunal found in her favour, stating that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for her disability, and that she had been subject to discrimination because of the impact of her dyslexia. The Tribunal also found that she had been victimised by Starbucks, as it had failed to understand the equality issues in relation to Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia and the effects it had on her work.

This case brings into stark focus the need for employers to be aware of what falls within the meaning of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010 and the obligations to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

Is an employee disabled?

Whether an employee is disabled under the Equality Act 2010 is a legal test and does not necessarily correspond with other tests or perceived perceptions. Some conditions are deemed to be disabilities. For other conditions, the law asks four questions to determine whether an employee would be classed as disabled:

  1. Does the employee have a physical or mental impairment?
  2. Does this effect their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities?
  3. Is the effect substantial?
  4. Is the effect long term (12 months generally)?

If an employee does come under the legal definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010, employers are under an obligation (amongst other things) to make reasonable adjustments.

Reasonable adjustments

Employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled job applicants and employees. The duty effectively means that the employer must then make necessary alterations to remove the disadvantages suffered by the individual as a result of their disability.

A disadvantage may occur due to:

  • A physical feature of an employer’s premises;
  • A provision, criteria or practice adopted by an employer that places a disabled individual at a disadvantage – for instance, if an employer has set targets, but an employee has a condition which affects their concentration at work and makes it hard for them to meet those targets, that employee could be put to a disadvantage if they were to receive less bonus/be placed under performance management processes as a result.
  • An employer’s failure to provide an auxiliary aid.

If one of the above situations arises, the employer should look at making reasonable adjustments. What is reasonable is always a key question, and a difficult one to answer, as this will depend upon the circumstances of the case. Reasonable adjustments include (but are not limited to):

  • Adjusting physical premises;
  • Altering hours of work;
  • Additional training;
  • Providing supervision or other support;
  • Modifying internal procedures such as disciplinary procedures; or
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment.

In the case of Ms Kumulchew and Starbucks, Ms Kumulchew was put to a disadvantage by being accused by her employer of falsifying documents, being given lesser duties at her branch and being told to retrain. Examples of reasonable adjustments Starbucks should have made to overcome the disadvantage would have included giving instructions visually/verbally in relation specific tasks, providing support with proof reading and taking alternative steps to manage the issue, as opposed to amending the duties.

For more information on disability or reasonable adjustments please do not hesitate to contact any member of the Employmentor Team on 01603 281139.

Note: the content of this article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be taken in any particular circumstance.

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