Could a hot-desking policy be deemed as discrimination?

A House of Commons Commission data manager was treated unfavourably and discriminated against after asking colleagues not to use a desk that had been adapted for her health needs, an employment tribunal has found.

The employee had been provided with equipment including an orthopaedic chair, specialist keyboard and mouse and a reading/writing slope to help with her musculoskeletal condition. She claimed she was subject to disciplinary proceedings for asking colleagues not to use her workstation as a hot desk while she was absent.

She had worked for the House of Commons Commission, which manages the parliamentary estate, since 1991 and had been issued with specialist equipment recommended by the organisation’s occupational health service.  She had her own desk that was adjusted in a way that minimised her pain. However, a hotdesking policy existed at the employee’s office as there were not enough desks to accommodate all employees.

 

In June 2018, the employee fell in the street and injured her knee and was signed off work. When she returned to the office she found all her equipment including her desk, chair and workstation had been “drastically” altered or moved. She claimed it was difficult to readjust all her equipment to suit her needs.

When she raised the issue with her manager she was told that reserving her desk for an extended period while she was away was not practicable. She disputed the need for a hot-desking policy as there were other rooms available for staff to work in.  An occupational health report in September 2018 reiterated that the desk should not be used as a hot desk. It said she needed to have her own dedicated workstation as she needed special equipment and a chair adjusted to suit her.

Later that month, the employee took a day off to attend a medical appointment and left a “polite” note on her desk reminding colleagues that it should not be used for hot desking. However, when she returned, she found that someone had adjusted her chair.

The claimant was summoned to a disciplinary meeting about “unreasonably” placing a note on her desk. The employer told the tribunal that this allegation was not pursued; however, the tribunal found the former employee had been distressed by it.

The judgement stated: “She would reasonably have considered that her continued employment was potentially prejudiced. She would reasonably have felt worried and threatened by the commencement of disciplinary action.

 

The tribunal determined that the employer allowed hot desking on all desks and accepted that the claimant was put at a substantial disadvantage by this practice, in that her workstation and equipment had been adapted for her needs, to prevent injury and discomfort, and other employees altered her equipment so that it was no longer safe for her to use. This exposed her to risk of injury.

 

The judgment added that “the House of Commons Commission victimised and discriminated against the former employee when it commenced disciplinary proceedings against her. It also failed to make a reasonable adjustment when it failed to prevent her desk being used as a hot desk.”

It is a legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to support employees with a disability; if they are in place, keep them in place and ensure that the support is ongoing. 

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