HR should recognise signs employee is struggling, says expert

A woman with dyslexia has won a disability discrimination case against her employer, Starbucks, after being wrongly accused of falsifying documents.

A tribunal found that Meseret Kumulchew had faced discrimination after making mistakes due to her difficulty with reading and writing.

She was accused of deliberately falsifying documents, after mistakenly entering the wrong water and fridge temperatures on the duty roster, one of her responsibilities as supervisor in her Starbucks branch in London. Kumulchew was then given lesser duties and told to retrain by the employer, which she said left her “feeling suicidal”.

Kumulchew had always made it known to her employer that she was dyslexic, and had asked for more time to allow her to understand tasks, and for someone to check her work for mistakes.

In a statement, Starbucks said: "We are in ongoing discussions with this Starbucks partner (employee) around specific workplace support and we are not able to comment on a case that has not yet been completed."

A spokesman from the British Dyslexia Association said: “While we can't comment on individual legal cases, all organisations must make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, including dyslexia, under the Equality Act 2010. They should have appropriate policies in place and make sure there are measures to avoid discrimination, including in the recruitment process, the work environment and colleague reactions.”

Shainaz Firfiray, an assistant professor of organisation and HRM at Warwick Business School, said it was clear that Starbucks hadn’t made reasonable adjustments in this case, despite having full knowledge of Kumulchew’s disability.

“Such adjustments are neither expensive nor do they require employers to implement significant changes to their existing policies,” she said.

“Dyslexic employees can be more effective in their roles if they are encouraged to communicate their workplace difficulties, given advanced notice of challenging tasks and provided the support to perform tasks without giving them the impression that their abilities are being doubted."

She said employers should avoid making disparaging remarks or excessive criticisms, that might undermine an employee's confidence.

"Recognise their strengths and encourage them to seek advice," she added.

Bernadette McLean, principal of Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, welcomed the judgment but said many more dyslexic people were suffering at work.

“Sadly this is not a one off,” she said. “We hear stories like this all the time and it doesn’t make headlines, but employers really do have a responsibility to look after their employees, particularly in a case like this where the female had declared her dyslexia and requested specific help.”

She added: “Getting training or outside expertise is always good, and having checklists that HR and managers can use to remind themselves what to look for, will help with spotting the signs. A good HR department should notice when an otherwise high-performing employee starts to struggle.”

McLean said often people with dyslexia are attracted to more practical roles, but the changing nature of work and role requirements, especially if employees want to progress up the management ladder, means that paperwork and literacy skills become a necessity.

“That is when it is vital to have those support mechanisms in place so you’re not on the back foot when your otherwise high-performing employee falls down at the paperwork stage,” she said.