February 24, 2016

Starbucks dyslexia case: What can employers learn?

Starbucks recently became the subject of media attention when a female employee suffering with dyslexia has won a claim for disability discrimination.

The claim rose arose from her employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for her dyslexia. But what can employers learn from this?

Having been being wrongly accused of falsifying documents, the employee brought proceedings in the Employment Tribunal.

She successfully argued that, although she had made mistakes, the employer discriminated against her by failing to take into account that these errors arose from her disability, dyslexia.

The employer had been aware of the disability and therefore had a duty to consider reasonable adjustments.

An Employment Tribunal sitting in London decided that the employee, Meseret Kumulchew, had been subjected to unlawful discrimination after making mistakes due to her literacy difficulties.

Essentially, she won by proving she was a disabled person within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.

The details:

  • It was part of the Ms Kumelchew’s role to check the temperature of the fridges and water, input this information onto a log sheet.
  • Owing to her difficulties, some information on the log sheet was incorrect.
  • Ms Kumelchew said she had always made her employer aware of the disability, and asked to be allowed more time to complete the tasks,
  • She also asked for somebody to conduct a review of her work to ensure it was ok.
  • Her employer accused her of deliberately falsifying the documents and effectively demoted herby giving her lesser duties
  • She was also told that she would need to retrain.

What can employers learn from this?

The amount of compensation which will be awarded is yet to be decided but one can easily imagine the award for injury to Ms Kumelchew’s feelings because  he has said the treatment left her feeling suicidal.

The case shows the importance of understanding the reasons for underperformance in the workplace.

It also highlights the dangers of imposing any disciplinary or other sanctions without fully investigating the reasons that the employee may be failing in certain areas.

Full investigations

There are many reasons why an employee’s performance at work is below expectations. They could be completely disinterested and couldn’t care less. They know the job but don’t care that they aren’t doing it correctly. This would almost certainly be misconduct.

They could be struggling with a certain aspect of the job because of a change in the workplace. For example where new software or systems are introduced, some employee adapt quicker than others. This could be a capability issue, and the response from the employer would need to be very different from a misconduct matter.

It could also be the case, as in Ms. Kumelchew’s Tribunal claim, that nothing in the workplace has changed per se, but a physical or mental impairment is preventing the employee from performing his or her duties to the required standard.

Perhaps taking much longer than others, or failing completely with the task. Either way, unless the employer takes time to get to the root of the problem, through discourse with the employee, there is a real risk that the employer will respond in an inappropriate or even unlawful manner to the situation. Employer duties

Where an employer is aware of a disability, there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments, and a failure to do so is unlawful discrimination. An adjustment could be allowing more time, or setting lower targets, or providing equipment which will help to overcome the difficulties.

This is not only a complex area of law, but it is also one of the most expensive for employers who are found to have failed in their obligations, with Tribunal awards running into tens of thousands of pounds in some cases. In 2014, there was an award exceeding £230,000.

Need further advice on this topic? Should you need any advice or assistance with these complicated issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us. You can also download our Employment Law Guide or attend one of our Webinar legislation updates.

By Stuart Morley

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About the author

Stuart Morley

Having then been awarded a scholarship from the Bar Council, Stuart sat his Bar exams in Manchester and was called to the Bar of England and Wales in October 2002. Since then, Stuart has worked as an Employment Tribunal Advocate, handling all aspects of employment advice and litigation at hearing centres across the UK.