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A storm in a coffee cup? Starbucks and its dyslexic employee

A storm in a coffee cup? Starbucks and its dyslexic employee

The recent Employment Tribunal decision that Starbucks discriminated against a dyslexic employee is a reminder of how important the disability discrimination regime continues to be in guiding how employees who may be disabled should be treated.

Meseret Kumulchew is a supervisor at Starbucks in Clapham who suffers from dyslexia. She inaccurately recorded the water and fridge temperatures as part of her duties (as she had simply misread the numbers she was responsible for recording), and Starbucks accused her of falsifying the recordings. They then reduced her responsibilities and ordered her to retrain. Ms Kumulchew said she had made her managers aware of her dyslexia, and the accusation of falsifying numbers had made her suicidal.

The Employment Tribunal found that Starbucks had victimised Ms Kumulchew and had failed to make reasonable adjustments for her dyslexia. Dyslexia in itself is not automatically a “disability” for the purposes of discrimination legislation, so in order to fall within the protection of the disability regime, it had to be shown that Ms Kumulchew was suffering from:

  • A physical or mental impairment; 

  • Which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on…

  • Her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Ms Kumulchew succeeded in showing the above. She then successfully showed that Starbucks had failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments in respect of her condition. Given that the issue at the heart of this case was Ms Kumulchew’s inaccurate readings of the temperatures, reasonable adjustments could have been giving her more time to double-check the readings and/or getting a colleague to help check that they were right.

What is interesting in this case is that Ms Kumulchew is still an employee of Starbucks, so it would be interesting to know how the continuing relationship between Starbucks and Ms Kumulchew has been managed; cases like this often expose large, high-profile employers to reputational risk in terms of a public finding against them of discrimination, which makes it all the more note-worthy that the issues between them were not resolved before reaching the full Tribunal hearing. We shall see whether this case prompts more disability-related Tribunal claims from dyslexic employees, who may have previously thought they had no possibility of being protected by the disability discrimination regime.