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Things Not to Say to Your Employees: Discrimination at Work

In the news last week, a former Specsavers employee won her claim of disability discrimination in the Employment Tribunal after her manager told her to “pull yourself together”.  As an employment law solicitor, I often cringe when I hear stories of “what the boss said” or about ‘so-called’ banter in the workplace.  This case proves just how easy it is to say the wrong thing or make a naïve comment which lands an employer in court.

In Wickers v Colchester Visionplus Ltd t/a Specsavers Opticians, Ms Wickers had already been on her employer’s radar having received both formal and informal warnings for a dispensing error, lateness and failing to follow the Company’s sickness absence reporting procedure.  Ms Wickers later attended an appraisal with a Director where concerns were raised with her.  Ms Wickers became tearful in the appraisal and the Director advised that she should visit her GP.  In response, Ms Wickers told the Director she had been diagnosed with depression and was taking medication.  His response was to state that he lacked sympathy “for this kind of thing”.  He later went on to tell Ms Wickers “everyone gets depressed sometimes, you just have to pull yourself together”.

After the appraisal, Ms Wickers had a number of absences, made another dispensing error and was late for work which prompted the Director to move straight to disciplinary action.  Ms Wickers was warned it was likely she would be dismissed and it appeared no regard had been given to her illness.  Ms Wickers resigned from her position and claimed disability discrimination.

The Tribunal found in her favour in relation to two particular types of discrimination:

Harassment: the comments made by the Director were dismissive of Ms Wickers’ medical condition and were both offensive and humiliating.  

Failure to make reasonable adjustments: Ms Wickers’ lateness was attributed to the medication she was taking which impacted on her sleep. The Company should have made reasonable adjustments to its disciplinary procedure as a result of Ms Wickers’ disability.

Ms Wickers received £7,500 in compensation.

The case in point demonstrates that employers should think carefully before making comments which could be viewed as discriminatory. It’s very easy for employers to land themselves in hot water with comments which may not have even been given a second thought before they were spoken.  Employers are usually responsible for the actions of their employees so it is important that guidelines are set and training is put in place.

Do you have an Equal Opportunities policy and an Anti-Harassment and Bullying policy in place?  Are these up to date?  Have managers been trained on them?  Do your staff engage in banter or nicknames which are questionable?  At SCE Solicitors we have a wealth of experience in dealing with discrimination in the workplace.  If you would like to discuss your policies or a bespoke training session for your managers, please contact me on 0113 350 4030 or at hello@scesolicitors.co.uk.

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SCE Solicitors is a boutique employment law and dispute resolution practice based in Leeds which advises clients nationwide.  Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here.

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