Employers must take action to avoid discrimination

In December Starbucks lost a disability discrimination case after it wrongly accused a dyslexic employee of falsifying documents when she had simply misread numbers she was responsible for recording.

Monday, 7th March 2016, 15:00 pm
Updated Saturday, 5th March 2016, 04:00 am
Starbucks has lost a disability discrimination case.

At the Employment Tribunal it was found that Meseret Kumulchew suffered discrimination after making mistakes due to her difficulties with reading, writing and telling the time.

One of her responsibilities as a supervisor at Starbucks at Clapham Junction was to take the temperature of fridges and water at specific times and enter the results in a duty roster. Unfortunately, due to her dyslexia she made a number of errors. After being accused of deliberately falsifying documents she was given lesser duties and told to retrain. She claimed that the distress left her “feeling suicidal”.

An important aspect that the tribunal considered was that she had always made it known to Starbucks that she was dyslexic, meaning that she has difficulties with words and numbers, and has to be shown how to do tasks visually. She had asked for more time to allow her to understand tasks, and also for someone to check her work.

The British Dyslexia Association says this should be a wake-up call for employers. They estimate that one in 10 people has dyslexia to some degree, although many have not been formally diagnosed.

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Dr Kate Saunders, chief executive of the British Dyslexia Association, said: “Many dyslexics are struggling in the workplace with very high levels of anxiety because employers do not have the training or the awareness to make adjustments for them.”

It is well established that all employers must make “reasonable adjustments” for those with disabilities, including dyslexia, under the Equality Act 2010. Employers should always have appropriate policies in place to avoid discrimination.

Unfortunately for Starbucks, they did not make reasonable adjustments in this case, despite having full knowledge of Kumulchew’s disability. The tribunal also found she had been victimised by her employer and there appeared to be little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues.

In many cases, and certainly in this case, the adjustments required are not expensive and neither do they require employers to implement significant changes to their policies. Employers should definitely avoid making disparaging remarks or excessive criticisms that might undermine an employee’s confidence.

As always, being aware of the needs of employees and looking out for signs that a member of staff is struggling will help. This should be backed up with appropriate support mechanisms to help otherwise high-performing employees who may need help with paperwork. Reasonable adjustments for dyslexics might include making sure an employee has a recording device for meetings, providing support with proof reading and giving instructions verbally rather than in writing.

Employees with dyslexia can be prone to suffer a loss of confidence if they are not supported. Employers need to ensure that they get the best out of them as they can have much to offer in the workplace.