Following a recent employment tribunal decision, we look at how employers should ensure that they are accommodating and supporting dyslexic employees.

The Starbucks case

An employment tribunal recently held that Starbucks discriminated against an employee who had dyslexia and who was wrongly accused of falsifying documents.

The employee, whose responsibilities included taking the temperature of fridges and water at specific times and entering the results on a roster, made mistakes as a result of her dyslexia. As a result, her managers removed certain duties from her and she was told to retrain, which she said left her 'feeling suicidal.'

The tribunal found that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for the employee's disability and had discriminated against her because of the effects of her dyslexia. There will be a separate hearing to determine how much compensation Starbucks will have to pay.

It is estimated that one in ten people have dyslexia to some degree, although many have not been formally diagnosed. The case is therefore a wake-up call for employers who need to be aware of the problems which may be faced by a dyslexic individual in the workplace.

Is dyslexia a disability?

In the right circumstances, someone who is dyslexic may be "disabled" within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 (EA). If so, they will be protected against discrimination and their employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for them to assist them in performing their duties. Failure to do so can lead to potentially unlimited compensation being awarded by an employment tribunal.

However, just because someone suffers from dyslexia, they will not automatically be legally protected. The key question will be whether their dyslexia has an adverse impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. They are likely to be regarded as disabled under the EA if the answer to this question is yes.

How should employers support employees who suffer from dyslexia or similar conditions?

Whether or not someone satisfies the legal definition, employers would be advised, in all cases, to see if there are ways that they can support employees who suffer with the condition in order to help them do their job more easily.

If the dyslexia is more severe and falls within the EA definition of disability then the employer is under a legal obligation to consider ways in which it can ameliorate any disadvantage suffered by an employee. Examples of reasonable adjustments include: providing a colleague to proof read documents, relaying instructions verbally as opposed to in writing, allowing sufferers to record instructions or meetings instead of writing things down by providing a Dictaphone and giving the employee more time to perform written tasks (where their duties involve this).

Employers should also review whether they have policies which, although they apply to everyone may be particularly difficult for dyslexic employees to comply with.

Can duties be withheld from an employee because of their dyslexia?

There may be rare situations where this is appropriate but it should be handled sensitively in order to avoid allegations of discrimination and/or harassment.

In high pressure health and safety critical roles such as air traffic control or medical roles where the ability to read numbers and statistics swiftly is literally life and death there may be justifiable reasons why employers would not wish to employ an employee with dyslexia.

However, employers always need to consider whether there are reasonable adjustments which could eliminate any issues. For example, if instead of displaying the numbers on a screen these were relayed to the employee via audio / headset for them to make decisions, then the ability for them to read numbers is removed.

Blanket rules preventing certain roles or tasks from being carried out by employees with dyslexia are highly unadvisable: the individual role, duties, circumstances and effect on the particular employee all have to be considered and discussed with the employee in question before any determination is made regarding what the individual can or cannot do.

Practical tips for addressing dyslexia in the workplace

  • Open dialogue with employees is critical. If an employer already has an open and inclusive culture, employees with any difficulties will be more likely to speak to their manager about any concerns or problems which they may be encountering due to dyslexia
  • All dyslexic individuals are different so dialogue is important to ensure their needs are being met the needs appropriately
  • Once aware that an employee is dyslexic an employer may be under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments and they should consider how best they can support the employee. For example, is there any equipment or training which may help?
  • It is not just the dyslexic employee who needs to be considered, it may be appropriate to provide training for other staff about dyslexia awareness
  • There are organisations which can provide help and advice to employers about dyslexia, including the British Dyslexia Association: http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/