Dyslexic helpdesk employee awarded £28k for disability discrimination
30 September 2019
A recent case, Bulloss v Shelter, has highlighted how important it is for employers to communicate with employees about reasonable adjustments, rather than simply changing a role to avoid the need for adjustments to be made.
Facts of the case
James Bulloss worked as an adviser for homelessness charity Shelter from 2014 until he resigned in 2017. He initially provided advice to service-users over the telephone, but in July 2017 he started advising via the web-chat service, on a trial period for 4 weeks.
Following monitoring of a number of the chats, he received negative feedback from the team leader, due to him consistently making grammatical and spelling errors, and failing to use pre-prepared responses during live chats with service-users. At the time, Bulloss was not diagnosed as dyslexic, but four weeks later, following a week off sick, he made his employer aware that learning webchat had left him feeling ‘a little run down’, that he was not used to writing so much, and that he suspected he was dyslexic. However, he said that he did not want to return to doing the phone advice, because he found the work shifts exhausting and preferred the more regular hours of the web-chat service.
A few weeks later in a review, Bulloss said he now felt more comfortable advising via the web-chat service. However, the team leader still felt that the quality of the spelling, grammar and general writing was not of a high enough standard on most of the chats reviewed, although this had not led to service-user complaints – in fact, his feedback scores were good. He was then given a week to improve.
Bulloss requested leave due to feeling fatigued and thought it was related to dyslexia. However, Bulloss was then told that he had failed the trial period and would need to return to giving telephone advice the following day.
Bulloss went off sick with anxiety. When he returned to work, he advised his employer that he had been diagnosed with dyslexia and requested a phased return to work and adjustments, which were granted. However, Bulloss felt the phased return might not be working as he was feeling unwell and asked if he could work on the web-chat service due to his dyslexia. Shelter told him that moving back to web-chat was not something that they would consider. It seems this was because they did not perceive that the dyslexia affected his ability to advise via the telephone, and that due to his performance during his trial, they would not consider moving him to work via the web service.
Bulloss resigned as a result, and brought claims for disability discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments, victimisation and unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal.
Bulloss’s claims for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination were successful, and he was awarded £28,324. The Judge felt that while Shelter had a discretion to deploy Bulloss where it thought fit, it should not have sought to avoid its duty to make reasonable adjustments by only considering telephone work.
This is because Bulloss’s job description included both telephone and web-chat work, and so denying him the reasonable adjustments that could help him do a part of his job was not acceptable. This is especially the case as he had wanted to benefit from improving his skills and experience in web-chat advice, to improve his career prospects.
It is important to note that this case was Employment Tribunal level only, and therefore doesn’t bind other Tribunals. Nevertheless, it is a useful illustration of the approach Tribunals can take.
This case highlights a number of key points – firstly, that the duty to consider reasonable adjustments exists even before a medical diagnosis is fixed, if an employer can see that the employee is facing disadvantages due to a physical or mental impairment.
Secondly, the decision also shows that if one element of an employee’s job is proving difficult for them due to a disadvantage because of a disability, it is not acceptable for the employer simply to require them not to do that aspect of their role, just to avoid having to implement reasonable adjustments.
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