Date: 04/03/2016 | By: lizpaintercommacomma

Dyslexia in the workplace is the subject of scrutiny following a recent case, says BizSmart Select Member Kirsten Cluer of Cluer HR.


Starbucks became the subject of media attention recently when one of its employees, Meseret Kumulchew, won her case for disability discrimination. Her claim arose from her employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for her dyslexia. She also won a claim for victimisation.


Equality Act 2010

Under this act, disability is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. When an employer is aware of an employee’s disability, and there are ‘provisions, criteria or practices’ (PCPs) that put that disabled employee at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled, the employer must take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage. It’s their responsibility to assess the need and nature of any adjustments irrespective of whether the employee requests them.

While dyslexia is not automatically deemed a disability, the prevailing symptoms and their severity do need to be assessed. Where medical conditions are identified, tribunals expect employers, particularly larger ones, to obtain guidance from occupational health professionals (which may also include suggestions from organisations like the British Dyslexic Association) on both the content and performance of an employee’s duties.

In the case of Starbucks, they carried out an investigation of data recorded by Kumulchew when she was checking equipment temperatures at the store where she was a supervisor. The investigation found her explanation implausible and led to accusations that she had made up the data. Internal disciplinary proceedings followed.

The coffee retailer had promoted the importance of diversity and inclusion and its global human rights statement emphasised inclusion and equality, specifically requiring employees to eliminate discriminatory practices personally. But policy commitments to a diverse workforce are insufficient. Tribunals will examine what happens in practice.

whats down there

What Is Dyslexia?

  • Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling
  • Signs of dyslexia usually become apparent when a child starts school and begins to focus more on learning how to read and write
  • A person with dyslexia may: read and write very slowly, confuse the order of letters in words, have difficulty taking notes or copying and find it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
  • People with dyslexia often have good skills in other areas, such as creative thinking and problem solving


Tribunal finds ‘no knowledge of equality issues’

The employment tribunal accepted that the mistakes Kumulchew made were due to her difficulties with reading, writing and telling the time, and that she had done enough to make her employer aware of her dyslexia and its impact on her. This would require an employer to make an assessment of her suitability to read, check and record data under time pressure in a busy, noisy environment but apparently she was in effect demoted and told to retrain. These are clearly detriments, and presumably the tribunal accepted these instructions were given even though the employee had complained about a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

The tribunal accepted there were alternative ways for the tasks to be met, either by the employee working with colleagues or by delegating the tasks, and that it would have been reasonable for these to be made.

Hoisted by rope

What can we learn from this case?

Once the issue of dyslexia in the workplace was raised in the disciplinary proceedings as an explanation for Kumulchew’s errors, the employer could have responded by referring her for an occupational health assessment on whether her symptoms amounted to a disability and to look at reasonable adjustments.

Perhaps most surprising was the tribunal’s observation that there appeared to be little or no prevailing knowledge of equality issues. Although presumably directed at a small number of employees who made mistakes during the disciplinary process, those comments affect Starbucks’s wider reputation and make the resolution of this particular case more challenging.

Further key lessons for employers

Certainly larger employers should aim to do the following, and smaller ones where possible:

  • provide appropriate equality training for staff, including periodic refreshers, so line managers get timely HR support to prevent matters escalating unnecessarily
  • document the training to confirm the employees’  participation and understanding
  • provide access to occupational health reporting if medical conditions are raised as explanations for conduct or performance in internal proceedings, even if an employer was unaware of the condition when starting an investigation 
  • pause internal proceedings to obtain further information promptly to help avoid positions becoming polarised and entrenched

Reasonable adjustments for dyslexics might include making sure an employee has a recording device for meetings, providing support with proofreading and giving instructions verbally rather than in writing.

If you need help supporting dyslexia in the workplace, contact BizSmart Select Member Kirsten Cluer of Cluer HR on 01386 751740 or info@cluerhrsolutions.co.uk