Thrings solicitor Duncan Snook comments:
Starbucks has lost a disability discrimination case after it wrongly accused a dyslexic employee, Ms Kumulchew, of falsifying documents.
Ms Kumulchew ’s role as a supervisor at Starbucks’ Clapham branch in south-west London involved recording temperatures of water and fridges at certain times of the day and writing them on a duty roster. Ms Kumulchew was accused by Starbucks of falsifying documents after mistakenly entering wrong information, her responsibilities were reduced and she was ordered to retrain.
She took Starbucks to an employment tribunal alleging disability discrimination. Ms Kumulchew, who is still employed by Starbucks, said she had made her bosses aware of her dyslexia, and the accusation of falsifying numbers had made her want to take her own life. She said that Starbucks should have “brought in the Dyslexia Association” and that having someone check what she had done would have helped her.
Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. According to Lexxic, which provides services for adults with learning difficulties in the workplace, 1 in 10 people in the UK has dyslexia, while 1 in 4 of those suffer with severe dyslexia.
The tribunal found that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for Kumulchew’s reading difficulties in breach of its obligations under the Equality Act 2010.The tribunal also found that Starbucks showed little or no understanding of equality issues.
This decision is – at the very least - a reminder that all employers must ensure that they have appropriate policies in place to avoid discrimination and, as part of this, make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, including dyslexia. 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.
Dr Kate Saunders, CEO of the British Dyslexia Association, said “Many dyslexics are struggling in the work place with very high levels of anxiety, because employers do not have the training or the awareness to make adjustments for them.”
It is also a reminder that discrimination claims can be pursued against employers whilst an individual remains in employment. In a statement, Starbucks said "We are in ongoing discussions with this…employee… and we are not able to comment on a case that has not yet been completed."
Not only does Starbucks now need to tread very carefully to ensure that it satisfactorily supports Ms Kumulchew back to work, it also needs to manage the unwanted attention this case has attracted. Starbucks is likely to remain in the spot light as a further hearing will shortly be held to determine how much compensation Starbucks should pay Ms Kumulchew.
If Ms Kumulchew is able to adduce cogent medical evidence in support of her contention that she was in a suicidal state as a result of the discriminatory treatment she was subjected to, Starbucks could well be faced with a significant award for injury to feelings and/or aggravated damages. Such an award would be painful for an organisation the size of Starbucks and potentially catastrophic for a small independent coffee shop.
For more information about the responsibilities of employers under the Equality Act, including the duty to make reasonable adjustments, please contact Duncan Snook or another member of Thrings’ Employment team.