The case of Meseret Kumulchew reminds us that it can be all too easy for an employer to get into difficulty when it comes to making reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee. Ms Kumulchew worked as a supervisor for Starbucks in Clapham, South West London. Her duties included periodic checks on fridge and water temperatures and marking them up on a chart. Pretty important given the safety implications for customers if it wasn’t done accurately.
Ms Kumulchew is dyslexic, which means she has difficulty with reading and recording words and numbers. It’s estimated this condition affects 10% of working age people in the UK at least to some degree so her condition is not an unusual one. She’d always made her disability known to her employer. So they would be under a duty to make adjustments to any working arrangements that might have placed her at a disadvantage. In this case it appears that she recorded figures inaccurately and was then disciplined for doing so deliberately. She disputed this and submitted a claim to an Employment Tribunal which has now found she was discriminated against unlawfully due to the failure to make adjustments and for treating her less favourably for reasons connected with her disability.
While the case doesn’t set any particular legal precedent, it does raises some interesting practical and legal considerations for employers. For example, whether an employer can be expected to compromise on health and safety in order to accommodate a disabled employee. What sort of practical steps should be taken to assist dyslexic staff members in particular and the extent to which disciplinary processes should be relaxed in certain circumstances.
The point about reasonable adjustments is that they need to be exactly that; reasonable. In the vast majority of cases they cost little or nothing and just need a little creative thinking. Getting a colleague to double check a temperature and how it is recorded or allocating the duties a little differently so that a task which requires a particular skill gets done by another. Naturally, with the disabled employee picking up other appropriate duties elsewhere in the team. Providing information or training in a more accessible format is another relatively simple adjustment that can make a huge difference.
What you should never do is compromise on safety and the law does not expect that either, indeed quite the opposite. But you shouldn’t ever have to if a work around has been identified, preferably with the employee’s input. After all, they will usually have the greatest insight into how a particular disability affects them in their particular role. Talking to them at the outset will often reveal a straightforward solution. If it doesn’t then help is usually at hand and often at no cost, through government and the many charities that exist to support individuals affected by particular disabilities.
If a situation does cause the conduct or performance of a disabled employee to be questioned, employers need to think carefully before invoking a disciplinary process. A reasonable investigation should disclose whether disability might be a factor which might then suggest a different approach. Again you don’t have to compromise on performance standards but ask yourself whether there is an adjustment which might level the playing field for that employee and give them an equal chance to meet the standard required.