Discriminating against employees with dyslexia – an important wake up call for employers

Posted on: February 8th, 2016

An Employment Tribunal in London has found that well-known coffee chain Starbucks discriminated against an employee with dyslexia and failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Ms Kumulchew, who was a supervisor at Starbucks in Clapham, south-west London, had duties which included monitoring the temperature of water and fridges at specific times and recording those results.

After mistakes in the records came to light, Starbucks accused Ms Kumulchew of falsifying documents and, as a result, she was given lesser duties and told she had to retrain.

Ms Kumulchew had made Starbucks aware of the fact that she has dyslexia, which means that she has difficulty with words and numbers, which affected her ability to accurately record numbers such as the temperatures.

The Employment Tribunal found that Starbucks had discriminated against Ms Kumulchew on the grounds of disability, had failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments and had victimised Ms Kumulchew after she had complained of discrimination.

In a statement after the Employment Tribunal hearing, Starbucks commented that it is committed to having a “diverse and inclusive workforce”; however, during the hearing the Employment Tribunal noted that Starbucks had demonstrated little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues.

This case is an important wake-up call for employers (I’ll resist the temptation for a caffeine-based pun at this point!).  Dyslexia is a condition which is widely misunderstood: many people believe that it simply means that a person has difficulty with spelling and, the more cynical employers or managers out there, may think that it’s something of an excuse.

In fact, dyslexia affects far more than just a person’s spelling.  Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty in note-taking, letter-writing or preparing written reports;
  • Difficulty in reading and understanding new terminology;
  • Difficulty in remembering names and factual information (including personal information such as a PIN or phone number);
  • Difficulty in time-management, meeting deadlines, remembering appointments.

Around 1 in 10 people in the UK are dyslexic, amounting to around 6.3 million people and so there is no doubt that it is a condition which employers will come across and, as the Starbucks case shows, ignorance is no excuse.

Dyslexia can amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 which means that dyslexic employee are afforded certain protections in the workplace.  In addition to the normal protection from discrimination, employers are also under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to prevent a dyslexic employee from being placed at a disadvantage.

What adjustments are reasonable will always depend on the specific circumstances, taking into account the employee’s needs, their job duties and what changes the employer can feasibly make; however, some adjustments include:

  • Providing special screens designed for dyslexic users of computer monitors;
  • Providing an employee with a recording device for meetings;
  • Giving instructions verbally rather than in writing;
  • Allowing additional time for tasks to be completed;
  • Providing support with proof-reading.

The Starbucks case is also a timely reminder that if an employee raises a concern about the way they have been treated which is related to a protected characteristic (in this case, disability) you must take it seriously and you must not treat them unfairly as a result.  It’s very easy for employers to find themselves facing an additional claim of victimisation, simply because managers were not aware of the proper way to respond to an employee’s complaint.

Finally, “diversity and inclusion” (“equal opportunities” in old money) is a hot topic at the moment; however, employers must do more than simply pay lip service to the idea.  Having a diversity policy stuck in a dusty handbook somewhere is not enough, which, rather handily, ties in with our training workshop on Wednesday 30 March, called Delivering Diversity: More than just an equal opportunities policy.

However, before then, we have our next workshop on Thursday 25 February: Settlement Agreements and Protected Conversations: dos and don’ts for managers.  With the Government looking to change the rules on the tax treatment of settlement payments, and many companies trying to resolve tricky employment issues before the end of the financial year, now is a good time to make sure that you or your managers know how to approach employees about a settlement agreement and how to make sure the company is protected.  For more information about the workshop and to book your place, please click here.