In Baker v House of Commons Commission, an employment tribunal held that the employer had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments when it failed to prevent the use of a disabled employee's modified workstation as a hot desk during her one-day absence.
Ms Baker's musculoskeletal symptoms made her disabled. Following an occupational health assessment, the Commission adjusted her workstation and equipment.
In August 2018, Ms Baker returned from one month's sickness absence to discover that her workstation and equipment had been 'drastically' altered or removed as her desk had been used for hotdesking. It happened again after a one-day absence the following month, so she left a 'polite' note saying that it should not be used.
The Commission invited Ms Baker to attend a disciplinary hearing for among other things, unreasonably placing the note on her workstation after it had told her that 'it could not be reserved exclusively during extended absence due to the pressure of office accommodation'.
Employment tribunal decision
The tribunal concluded that the Commission's practice of allowing hotdesking on all desks put Ms Baker at a substantial disadvantage because her workstation and equipment had been adapted for her needs and she risked injuring herself if alterations were made.
Preventing hotdesking for a month was not a reasonable adjustment because there were fewer desks than employees, so it was not practicable to keep one desk empty for weeks at a time. Ms Baker's colleagues could help her 'reinstate' her desk.
However, the short-term absence was different. Asking employees not to use Ms Baker's desk when she was away from it for a short period was reasonable.
On Ms Baker's complaint of discrimination arising from disability, the tribunal found that leaving her polite note on her desk was something arising in consequence of her disability and starting disciplinary action would have made her worry about her job. It was a heavy-handed and punitive response from the Commission which could not provide a credible non-discriminatory explanation. Both claims succeeded.
What can you learn from this case?
Ensure that any hotdesking arrangements that you put in place do not put disabled employees at a substantial disadvantage. 'Substantial' means more than minor or trivial.
Where you identify a substantial disadvantage consider what further steps are reasonable for you to take to avoid that disadvantage.
What is 'reasonable' will depend on the circumstances, including the size and financial or other resources of your business, the practicability of any adjustment and whether it will alleviate the disadvantage.
The duty to make reasonable adjustments is placed on you, the employer, not the employee. Ensure your line managers know how to support an employee who becomes disabled.
You cannot justify a failure to make reasonable adjustments. Where the duty applies, the determinative factor is whether it is reasonable to adjust.
This case concerned hotdesking but, how else can you adjust your hybrid working model to include disabled workers?