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Steve Williams

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Managing disability in the workplace – good practice pointers


The London Paralympics was a huge success and shone a spotlight on how disability is definitely not a barrier to achievement. According to the Labour Force Survey, disabled people are now more likely to be employed than in 2002 and thousands of people successfully work in the UK with their disability.

As an HR professional there is a wealth of free advice and information you can find online, including Acas’ website, on how to get it right when employing disabled people. I want to concentrate on two recurring themes to our Acas Helpline. These are:

  • Unwanted behaviours and harassment of disabled people
  • The practical aspects of managing reasonable adjustments

Even with increased awareness, attitudes to disability can be negative or even hostile. In 2011, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report into disability harassment called “Hidden in Plain Sight” that set out distressing accounts of where people suffered harassment and other hate crimes across our community.

We know that harassment of disabled people also occurs in workplaces. For example, Tom has Parkinson’s disease. Tom is disabled under the Equality Act but over the last few months his co-workers have been making jokes about his slurred speech and his walking style inferring he’s drunk and should “lay off the sauce”. When Tom raised this with his manager he was told it is only harmless banter, a “bit of fun” and he should ignore it. Despite Tom asking for this behaviour to stop it continued and progressively undermined his dignity and confidence to the point where he was now making more mistakes and errors in his work as all he could think about was the name calling. This example is very typical of the types of calls we get on our helpline.

This is harassment whether or not co-workers intended to injure Tom in this way. It is discrimination and the employer is liable. Employers should follow good practice to minimise the risk of this and avoid a possible claim to an Employment Tribunal.

Firstly, review your bullying and harassment policy. If you don’t have one, start work now to develop one. Secondly, make sure it addresses the sorts of behaviours that you won’t accept in your business and especially banter. Banter can be a positive team building team trait but if unchecked then our experience suggests it can undermine dignity and ostracise people who are different. Finally, make sure through training that all your employees understand where the line is between acceptability and harassment and importantly, what to do if they feel matters are getting out of hand. Ask yourself, in your business how would you handle Tom’s complaint? Are your managers able to identify and respond to a “Tom” even before he feels he needs to complain and when he does, are there clear informal and formal steps he knows he can take to stop this behaviour from continuing?

The second question put to our helpline is how to manage a reasonable adjustment in the workplace for an employee or job applicant.

The short answer is to ask the individual concerned! Most disabled people know what the impact of their impairment is and what can be done to reduce or mitigate its effects to enable them to undertake their job successfully

Sometimes the employer needs reassurance that it’s ok to treat a disabled person better than a non disabled person when making adjustments and that is quite lawful and the right thing to do.

However, managing the consequences of this can require the line manager to balance the disabled employee’s right to confidentiality against explaining to others why a colleague is being treated in a different and possibly more advantageous way. If not handled confidently perceptions of unfairness can undermine the team. For instance, consider how you would handle the reasonable adjustment below for Gary.

Gary has been recently diagnosed with Crohns disease, a symptom of which is severe fatigue especially in the mornings. He explains this to his employer who enables Gary to work flexibly with a later start time than his colleagues. This is a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010 where employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. However this means Gary misses a very busy part of the day that his co-workers have to cover. Gary is very embarrassed about his impairment and doesn’t want this known to colleagues.

In this case the employer has made a reasonable adjustment as required. If Gary is unwilling to disclose his impairment then the employer must respect his decision (although he must not bully Gary into disclosure just because it would make life “easy”) and explain to staff that raise the issue that there are legal reasons why this arrangement is in place and you intend to treat the issue as confidential. A sensible employer would always watch out for consequential harassment of Gary and take immediate steps to stop such behaviour.

If an employee discloses their disability then it is key that the employer knows how to manage the situation. Having managers that have the confidence and skills to sometimes have difficult conversations can help.