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Employment Law Case Update: Disability and Work Place Adjustments

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Insensitivity towards an employee's disability can be costly for employers, as demonstrated in the recent case of N Williams v Boots Management Services LtdOur Employment Law team review the case and advise how employers can avoid claims of this nature.

Ms Williams was a long serving employee of Boots, joining in November 1984 and remaining until her resignation in August 2017. At the time of her resignation she was an Accuracy Checking Pharmacy Technician at the Holyhead pharmacy. 

In May 2012, Ms Williams was diagnosed with scoliosis of the spine. Her symptoms included constant pain, stiffness and muscle fatigue when standing for long periods of time with little movement. Despite being restricted in her ability to carry out some day to day activities, Ms Williams was able to manage her pain by not standing still for long periods of time and taking rests throughout the day.

In January 2016 Ms Wilber joined the Holyhead pharmacy as store manager. Employees were used to taking a 15 minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea break but in April 2016, Ms Wilber removed these breaks without consultation. Ms Williams experienced an increase in her workload, partly due to aggressive repeat prescriptions targets and the addition of several new employees whom Ms Williams was responsible for training.   

Ms Williams told the Employment Tribunal that the increased workload, coupled with the removal of breaks, aggravated the pain caused by her scoliosis. She made repeated requests to Ms Wilber for a workplace assessment on her work station. Despite these requests and the recommendations of Occupational Health, an assessment was never carried out and no reasonable adjustments were made.

On 30 September 2016, Ms Wilber issued Ms Williams with a Performance Improvement Plan. The PIP was drawn up without consultation with Ms Williams. This was, the ET concluded, a response to Ms Wilber’s perception of poor performance based on “leadership, time management and pharmacy operations.”

Ms Williams was very upset. She obtained a note from her doctor signing her off work for four weeks - and never returned to work.  On 14 October 2016 she issued a grievance. Initially, a grievance manager was appointed and a grievance meeting was planned in December 2016, but although various other meetings occurred, such as welfare and keeping in touch appointments, the grievance meeting itself did not take place until April 2017. After this an investigation commenced and although, in July 2017, her grievance was partly upheld, Ms Williams remained dissatisfied and duly resigned.

The ET found that the issuing of the PIP amounted to discrimination; Ms Wilber was aware of Ms Williams’ disability and its effect on the speed at which she could work. The ET also upheld Ms Williams’ complaints that the removal of tea breaks and failure to ensure she had a manageable workload constituted failures to make reasonable adjustments.

The ET considered Boots’ response to Ms Williams’ grievance, finding there was an “unnecessary and unjustified” delay in appointing a grievance officer and conducting a grievance meeting. The ET found that the culmination of Boots’ actions towards Ms Williams constituted an unfair constructive dismissal and she was awarded £6,882.70.

Employers should ensure that all employees – especially those in management positions – are properly trained on their obligations towards employees with disabilities. They should be aware of their duty to provide reasonable adjustments and carry out workplace assessments - and understand how to be sensitive and supportive towards employees with disabilities.  Additionally, those charged with handling grievances need to do so in a timely fashion.

If you have any questions regarding this article, you can call our Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

This was previously part of our weekly Employment Law Newsletter. If you would like to subscribe, please email us at events@warnergoodman.co.uk or just fill in our subscription form.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.