A dyslexic helpline worker was unfairly dismissed after his employer refused to allow him to move to answer queries via a new instant messaging platform, an employment tribunal has ruled.
James Bulloss, who worked as an adviser for homelessness charity Shelter, was reassigned roles and moved back to telephone-only work after his manager flagged a series of spelling and grammatical errors in his webchats with service users during a trial period in the team.
However, a Sheffield employment tribunal (ET) ruled that in removing Bulloss from webchat work, his employer had failed to make reasonable adjustments.
The judge said just because Bulloss’s job description included answering queries via both webchat and telephone, it should not mean a disabled employee wishing to undertake webchat work should be denied reasonable adjustments and instead be moved to telephone-only work.
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Bulloss worked for Shelter as an adviser from September 2014 until his resignation in October 2017. The role initially required shift work to cover the phones during evenings and on Saturdays. In May 2017, Bulloss asked if he could join a newly formed webchat team – which would provide similar advice over an instant messaging service.
On 13 June he was informed via email he would begin training for the new service on 3 July, and a four-week trial period commenced on 17 July. Bulloss and the other candidates were warned that if they failed the trial period they would be returning to ‘voice’, meaning telephone queries only.
During the trial period, the webchat team leader, Ms Jackson, selected multiple random chats to use in informal feedback to the individual advisers. This was in addition to the formal monitoring of four chats each per adviser per week. Jackson noticed Bulloss’s chats often had spelling and grammatical errors and that he had been ‘free typing’ rather than using the ‘shortcuts’ – a library of pre-prepared paragraphs to help achieve consistency of advice and response.
Later that month, Bulloss was off work ill for a week, returning on 31 July. During a return-to-work meeting, Jackson noted that Bulloss told her learning webchat had “taken it out of him, and he has felt a little run down”. She added he was not used to writing so much and he himself suspected he was dyslexic.
Jackson emailed Ms Deakin, operations manager of Shelter’s national helpline, the same day to say Bulloss did not want to return to voice because he found it “exhausting as he had to work shifts”, whereas working on webchat meant he could leave at the same time each day.
She asked Deakin if they should keep assessing Bulloss’ work as normal until they got a confirmation of dyslexia. Deakin responded that they should “carry on as we were”.
Jackson met with Bulloss on 18 August for a routine review. Bulloss said he felt more comfortable on chats and felt like he was making fewer errors. Jackson admitted there was “no real issue” with the quality of the advice Bulloss gave clients, but there were “a number of issues with spelling, grammar and the general writing on most of the chats”. She commented that “luckily, none of the clients had picked up on that”, and he had received good feedback scores.
Despite this, Jackson said the grammar and spelling issue could not continue because “it did not look good for Shelter and the service”, and Bulloss would be given one more week to improve or be moved back to voice.
On 23 August, Jackson asked Shelter HR adviser Marie Primarolo if she knew of any guidance around dyslexia. Primarolo said she did not have much information but could have a look. She went on to write: “However, it is strange it is only coming to light now he does not want to go back to shift working.”
Bulloss requested leave on 22 August because he was feeling fatigued and thought this was related to his dyslexia.
Jackson and Deakin met on 29 August to consider the outcome of Bulloss’ trial period. Both decided he had failed and would be returned to the telephone advice role. Jackson informed Bulloss the same day that he would be going back to phones the following day.
That day, Bulloss emailed Shelter’s HR team asking what his notice period was and if he had any outstanding leave he could take starting that day or as soon as possible. He said this was because he “had some news which meant he was not fit or well enough to be at work at present” – which the tribunal took to be the return to voice.
He left work the same day, and provided a sick note the following day which said he was not fit for work due to anxiety.
Bulloss returned to work on 25 September and informed Shelter that he had been given a dyslexia diagnosis during his leave. He requested a phased return to work and adjustments, which was granted.
But on 4 October, Bulloss informed Jackson he was not feeling well and thought the phased return to work might not be working. Bulloss met with Deakin on the same day and asked if there was no option for him to return to webchat because of his dyslexia. He also asked who she sought advice from in relation to reasonable adjustments in the workplace, and asked to check that moving him back to the voice team wasn’t part of the reasonable adjustment.
Deakin sent an email to Bulloss saying no adjustments were made because there was no diagnosis for dyslexia at the time. She added the option to move back to webchat “was not something [Shelter] would consider”.
In a separate email conversation, seen by the tribunal same day, Deakin reached out to Bulloss’ union representative to ask “why would we invest money for reasonable adjustments that are not necessary because his dyslexia does not affect his ability to perform effectively on the phone”.
On 16 October, Primarolo wrote to Bulloss acknowledging he was unhappy about returning to the voice team, but there had been “significant issues” with his performance during his trial period on webchat. Therefore, the decision to place him back on the voice team was not a reasonable adjustment, and any adjustments would be considered only in relation to his work on the voice team.
Bulloss resigned on 24 October saying he did not believe Shelter dealt with issues affecting him “relating to discrimination appropriately, legally or with regard for my wellbeing”. He then brought claims of disability discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments, victimisation and unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal on 16 November.
The ET ruled Bulloss had been unfairly dismissed, discriminated against due to his disability, and harassed by his former employer. As such, he was awarded £28,324.
Judge Robert Little said Bulloss had valid reasons for wanting to progress to webchat work “other than simply the convenience of set hours rather than shifts”.
“He saw webchat-based advice as the future and he wanted to progress his career and indeed secure it by acquiring the skills necessary to undertake that type of work,” Little said.
“While the employer had a discretion to deploy the claimant where it thought fit, it is clear from the internal correspondence which has now been seen that the respondent wished to avoid its duty by simply returning the claimant to voice work.”
Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said the ruling was a reminder to employers that the duty to make reasonable adjustments will exist even if an employee does not have a medical diagnosis.
“Where an employee has made their manager aware that they are facing disadvantages due to a physical or mental impairment, this automatically triggers the duty to make workplace adjustments that are deemed reasonable and have the effect of addressing the disadvantages,” Holcroft said.
He added any adjustments that can be put in place need to be discussed and introduced before this time to meet the proactive duty.
Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, said it was important the charity support their staff and volunteers who have a disability.
“If we ever fall short of what we expect of ourselves, it is essential that we use the learnings to improve for the future. Having reviewed this matter and identified the areas where we could have responded differently, we have now ensured that we are doing so,” she said.
Bulloss could not be reached for comment.