Our legal experts at Baines Wilson have given their verdict on a discrimination case involving Starbucks and a dyslexic employee.

Employers need to tread very carefully where an employee alleges that their mistakes are a result of a disability, even if the employer doesn’t believe they have one.

In a recent Employment Tribunal case, the Tribunal had to consider whether Starbucks had discriminated against an employee after she made frequent mistakes due to an inability to read, write or tell the time. The employee suffered from dyslexia, which she alleged Starbucks was aware of.

What happened?

Ms Kumulchew started employment with Starbucks in 2003. Her dyslexia caused problems with reading and writing including fluency, accuracy and understanding. The district manager responsible for her branch was aware of her dyslexia. 

One of Ms Kumulchew’s responsibilities included completing a daily roster of temperatures for the fridges. 

Although her manager would occasionally check the roster for mistakes, Ms Kumulchew never received feedback on an individual basis despite asking for someone to check her work.

Following a store assessment, Ms Kumulchew was called to a feedback session with senior management and accused of falsifying documents. She was asked about fridge temperatures and other data which she was responsible for. She tried to explain that the errors were due solely to her dyslexia.

The managers were not willing to accept Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia as the reason for her mistakes.

They instead accused her of falsifying documents and “making up” her dyslexia. She was given lesser duties and told to retrain by the employer, as well has being issued with a final written warning which she said left her “feeling suicidal”. Ms Kumulchew brought a claim for disability discrimination.

What did the Tribunal say?

The ET found that Ms Kumulchew had been treated unfavourably because of something arising out of a disability. 

The ET accepted that Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia meant that she was unable to complete the duty roster accurately and had therefore made errors. Ms Kumulchew had been invited to a disciplinary meeting and given a final written warning as a result of her mistakes which had arisen from her dyslexia.

What should you do about it?

Employers should err on the side of caution in situations where performance issues/mistakes at work may be the result of a disability. The British Dyslexia Association estimates that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, even if they have not been formally diagnosed.

There is no cap on compensation for successful discrimination claims, meaning that the most extreme cases can become very expensive, with awards having been made running to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If you have any queries relating to discrimination in the workplace or if you have any other employment related queries please do not hesitate to contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494