Disability discrimination claims rose sharply in 2018 with a 37% increase in claims compared to 2017. A higher awareness of mental health issues, increased levels of stress and mental health conditions, accompanied with the abolition of employment tribunal fees have all contributed to the increase of claims seen in employment tribunals.
Failing to support and address disability related issues in line with legislation and best practice can result in consequences for both the employee and the employer.
Consequences for Employers
For the employer, there is no limit on the compensation that can be awarded in discrimination claims. Compensation can include financial loss as well as damages for personal injury (physical and psychiatric) which arise from unlawful discrimination. Damages can also include injury to feelings, regardless of whether the employee has suffered a financial loss as a result of the discrimination.
Other consequences can also arise for the employer, such as damaged reputation, especially as most employment tribunals are held in public. This means that the press and members of the public are free to attend and listen to evidence presented. A damaged reputation can potentially lead to financial loss through loss of business and also through a damaged employer brand, which can be particularly important in sectors where the recruitment of key talent is competitive.
Additionally, there is the cost of recruiting to replace the ex-employee as well as the issues of handling lengthy court proceedings, including the cost of legal advice, representation and the cost of the employee’s time to defend the case.
Encourage conversations about disability
Disregarding the financial implications, employers that fail to create an open atmosphere to discuss disability concerns may find a culture of fear in their organisation. This may prevent issues from being handled as soon as possible to help both the organisation and the employee. Reportedly, 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year. It is therefore no surprise that many employees fear opening up to employers regarding their disability for fear of losing their jobs.
For employers to combat this fear, the key is to promote awareness of the company’s stance on supporting disability concerns, and to encourage employees to talk to their employers. Sometimes, simple reasonable adjustments can help employees to carry on with their normal duties, which can help improve attendance levels, reducing the costs and disruptions that absence incurs.
Importance of Employee Training
Sometimes, employers may feel that their employee’s actions were not accountable to the organisation in terms of discriminatory behaviour between employees. Training and awareness is key to making sure that all employees are aware of what constitutes discriminatory behaviour and where this effort is documented, it can help to prove that the company was not vicariously liable (a situation where the company is held responsible for the actions of another person) for the actions of an employee.
As well as employees being made aware of their responsibilities in terms of preventing discrimination, line managers and senior members of staff, who may be the first point of call when handling accusations of disability discrimination, will require thorough training. This will ensure that they act accordingly with legislation and also along with best practice so that the well-being of the employee and the organisation is the main focus.
For employees, a working environment that openly encourages discussions in relation to disabilities and one which aims to support disabled employees as much as is reasonably possible can be a very rewarding place to work. Approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and 3.7 million disabled people are in employment. Employers that are understanding, neutral and open in terms of disability can achieve a better reputation as an organisation, help to prevent legal action, achieve higher levels of productivity, loyalty and retention, and can help to decrease costs in terms of recruitment. All of this can help to create a more positive and accepting place to work.