Employers who fail to provide support and understanding to sick workers can expect to pay a high price, both in financial and reputational terms. An Employment Tribunal (ET) made that point in awarding substantial compensation to a coffee bar employee whose boss responded with a shocking display of ignorance after he was diagnosed with a progressive and incurable condition (Kelly v The Zoltar Group Ltd and Another).
The teenager worked part time for a company that ran a franchise coffee bar. After he disclosed to two colleagues and his supervisor that he had been diagnosed with the condition, he was initially removed from the work rota and offered no shifts. His boss insisted on informing the franchisor of his diagnosis and told him that he would not be reinstated unless he could prove that his condition could not be transmitted.
After he was allowed to return to work, his boss informed him that all his colleagues had been told about his condition and had been warned not to share drinks, food or cutlery with him on the basis that it could be transmitted by saliva. He was required to wear gloves; he was subjected to close monitoring and he was not permitted to work whilst his boss was on holiday.
He was told that the franchisor was concerned that it would face litigation should customers learn of his condition and had insisted that he not handle food. After being repeatedly removed from the rota, he resigned and launched proceedings against the franchisor, the company and his boss, who was the company's sole director.
The ET found that he had been subjected to disability discrimination in that he had been treated less favourably because of his condition. The reason for his exclusion from the rota was the incorrect assumption that, unless he wore gloves, his condition was transmittable if he touched or shared food, drink or cutlery with colleagues. It could in fact only be transmitted in limited circumstances.
He had also suffered harassment in that he had been singled out and subjected to derogatory comments by his boss, who had immediately formed an ignorant view of the effects of his condition. His dignity had been violated and an atmosphere created which was intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive.
The ET noted that he was starting out on his working life and was extremely hurt, disappointed and shocked by his boss's reaction to his diagnosis. His colleagues were misinformed about his condition and the surveillance and threats of disciplinary action to which he was subjected arose from his boss's ignorance. At a time when he needed support and understanding, he received the exact opposite and now felt little confidence in disclosing his condition to future employers.
The ET awarded him £15,000 for injury to his feelings, together with £1,880 in respect of lost wages and smaller sums in respect of accrued holiday pay and a failure to provide him with a written contract of employment.