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‘Breath-taking’ Lack of Training Led to Managers Committing ‘Grave Errors’ in the Treatment of a Disabled Employee

Laura Ashley has been ordered to pay a disabled Sales Leader over £18,000 after it was found she had been constructively unfairly dismissed, subjected to disability related harassment and that the employer had failed in their duty to  make reasonable adjustments.

The case of Iles v Laura Ashley Ltd is a reminder of the importance of ensuring all managers are appropriately and effectively trained. The judge described the employee in this case as finding herself faced with a manager who had ‘no understanding whatever of the concept of a disabled employee or of the duty make adjustments to accommodate the disability from which the employee clearly suffered’. The lack of training was described as ‘breath-taking’ and that it resulted in managers committing ‘grave errors’ due to the ‘startling ignorance of their duties’.

The Facts of the Case

The employee was diagnosed with arthritis and had a knee replacement operation. After returning to work she he did not anticipate a recurrence of her problems and continued to work her full range of shifts, including late shifts. Whilst working late shifts, the employee found that her knee became swollen to such an extent that she took a photograph of it and showed the photograph to her manager. The manager responded by suggesting that she should apply frozen peas to her knee during breaks and that she could keep the peas in the freezer compartment of the staff refrigerator.

The employee subsequently raised a grievance in respect of the arrangements made for her return to work. Her grievance and subsequent appeal were unsuccessful. The manager responsible for the appeal stated that the late shifts were the same length as the day shifts and that in retail it’s custom and practice for employees to work late shifts and flexibly. The employee continued to work late shifts during which her knee swelled. During a shift, her knee became so painful she sought permission from her manager to leave before the end of the shift. The manager made a comment to the employee that ‘it’s funny you can do an early shift but not a late shift’. The employee found the remark sarcastic and became angry that the manager appeared to be in no way supportive of her. When they went into a private office to discuss the situation the manager briefly  pinned the employee against the wall of the office.

The employee raised a grievance about this and how she had been treated in relation to her disability and the lack of support she had received. The majority of her grievance was not upheld. The employee resigned claiming she had been constructively unfairly dismissed and that she had been discriminated against.

The employment tribunal found:

  • The employer knew about the employee’s disability and its effects, so was under a duty to make reasonable adjustments. The employer knew the employee had arthritis and after she returned to work, she made it known to managers both orally and by showing the photograph, the effect working unadjusted duties was having on her. The judge felt it was obvious that working a late shift would mean extended use of the employee’s knee and that she would be affected by that extended use, ‘the fact that neither her manager nor any other manager chose to put their mind to the matter does not assist the employer’.
  • The employer failed to make reasonable adjustments for the employee. She was required to work full time shifts and late shifts with no reduction in the number of late shifts. This placed her at a substantial disadvantage when compared to non-disabled employees as, by reason of her disability, she suffered difficulty using her knee as the day progressed. Reducing the number of late shifts would have been a reasonable adjustment in the circumstances. In coming to this conclusion, the judge took into consideration that there were 20 employees working in the store and they were able to manage entirely without the employee during the months she was absent on sick leave following her operation. The judge felt that the employer never applied their mind to the question of reasonable adjustments because they never applied their mind to the possibility that the employee may be disabled.
  • The employee had been subjected to disability harassment by her manager when she was briefly pinned against the wall and when the sarcastic comment was made to her regarding her wishing to leave early because of her knee. Both incidents were related to her disability and violated the employee’s dignity and created a hostile environment for her.
  • The employee had been constructively unfairly dismissed as the manager’s actions above and the failure to make reasonable adjustments to the late shifts individually and collectively amounted to a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.

The employer was ordered to pay the employee over £18,000.

Advice

This case shows how important it is to ensure that managers understand disability and how to appropriately manage disability related issues in the workplace. Ultimately, a lack of manager training was at the heart of this case as this is what caused serious mistakes to be made.

It’s important for all employers to ensure that managers are effectively trained. As there is no limit on the amount a tribunal can award for a successful discrimination or failure to make reasonable adjustments claim, such training is a necessity not a luxury as it can help to protect your organisation.

Kingfisher Professional Services has a wide range of training available for managers including disability discrimination training and equal opportunities training. Managers are on the frontline when it comes to employee matters, so you need training that delivers results. Our management training packages are:

  • Cost effective and tailored to meet the needs of your organisation
  • Written and delivered by employment law experts you can trust
  • Praised by managers and employers for being practical, engaging and effective. Through interactive workbooks, case-studies and activities your managers have the opportunity to develop their skills and test their learning

We understand that finding time for key employees, such as managers, to attend training can be difficult. That’s why we come to you. We can deliver training at your premises (or other location of your choice) for groups of up to 10 attendees, minimising the amount of time managers are away from their duties.

If you are interested in manager training for your organisation, please do not hesitate to contact your Employment Law Specialist to discuss your training needs and to request a quote.

If you have an employment law matter you would like assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact us as we are happy to help.