I would imagine that, if you work in the PR team at Starbucks, the phrase “no publicity is bad publicity” is not one you would hear very often.
My daily 5-shot Venti Americano was livened up considerably yesterday morning by news reports with “Starbucks employee wins dyslexia discrimination case”. Interviewed on BBC Breakfast, the employee (or ‘partner’ in Starbucks-ese), Meseret Kumulchew, wept as she described how she had been driven to thoughts of suicide by the company’s accusation that she had deliberately falsified documents.
The report is based on Ms Kumulchew’s account, as no judgment has yet been published by the employment tribunal. The findings of the tribunal were, apparently, that Starbucks had discriminated against her “because of the effects of her dyslexia”, failed to make reasonable adjustments and that she had been victimised. There is still to be a remedy hearing.
Ms Kumulchew is dyslexic. One of the effects of this, for her, is difficulty in writing numbers down accurately. Part of her role as a shift supervisor was to take the temperature of fridges and water at particular times during the day and to record these temperatures.
What has been reported is that, after she had recorded incorrect information, she was accused of falsifying documents. This sounds like charges put to an employee in disciplinary proceedings, although it is not clear whether this is what actually happened. What did happen is that Ms Kumulchew was given lesser duties and told to retrain. While this could have been an (albeit clumsy) attempt to make adjustments to the role to avoid any disadvantage to Ms Kumulchew brought about by the requirement to write down fridge temperatures, her reaction and protestations that “I am not a fraud” suggests that the matter arose because of accusations of misconduct.
If it is the case that Ms Kumulchew did attempt to argue that her misconduct was caused by her disability, the employer should have engaged with her explanation and sought advice. Indeed, they could (as Ms Kumulchew has suggested) have sought assistance from the British Dyslexia Association.
Based on the reported findings of the tribunal in this case, Starbucks did not do so. Nor does it appear that they engaged with her about any adjustments that could have been made to the role. Suggestions she has made include allowing her more time to check her work, having someone else to look over her work and providing policies in big writing. Given the resources available to Starbucks, none of this seems to be unreasonable.
This case highlights how easy it is for employers to get it wrong. But also how easy it could have been for them to get it right. Had they worked with Ms Kumulchew to try to understand what effect her dyslexia had on her and what they could do to support her at work the publicity might have, for once, been good.