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Don’t pay the high price for disability discrimination in the workplace

Published 07 August 2023

NatWest has made the news recently for all the wrong reasons and an employment tribunal case led to more unwelcome headlines for the under-fire bank.

Alison Rose, the chief executive of NatWest, resigned following controversy over the closure of the bank account of Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader[1 cited 7.8.23]

And more bad news emerged not long after, when it was reported that a former executive at the bank won almost £90,000 after she was sacked from her job just two days after undergoing cancer surgery[2 cited 7.8.23]

The ex-worker successfully sued for disability discrimination and unfair dismissal after she was made redundant.

An employment tribunal heard the employee’s manager asked to ‘replace her’ due to being unable to ‘rely’ on her while she was undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

She was later 'humiliated' by her boss, who told her she was not needed at morning meetings, on her first day back at work after chemotherapy

The former bank worker was later terminated from her job, just two days after undergoing cancer surgery, despite 'glowing' reviews of her performance.

The cost of an employee being subjected to unfavourable treatment at work as a direct result of a disability is well known.

There is currently no cap on the amount of compensation an employee could receive if a claim for disability discrimination, or in fact any claim for discrimination, is successful.

Another bank worker who was run over by a car on her first day in a new job and left disabled, was awarded more than £4.7m after being made to feel “worthless” and ‘unsupported’ by her colleagues[3 cited 7.8.23]

 The tribunal is said to have heard the woman, was diagnosed with severe depression and psychosis after years of bullying behaviour at several London branches of NatWest. 

She is reported to have made more than 60 allegations of harassment and disability discrimination covering the entirety of her employment at NatWest from 2008 to 2014, including being shouted at and being called “stupid” at work.

 Under the Equality Act 2010 any type of disability discrimination is unlawful.

The Act protects any employee with a disability from being treated unfairly as a direct result of their condition or impairment.

An individual can suffer disability discrimination at any stage of the employment relationship.

It can happen with dismissal at the end of the relationship, during it while at work or even at the very start and the recruitment stage, which a recent case highlighted.

A woman was mutism was found to have been harassed and victimised when a pizza boss replied to her enquiry about a job with a laughing emoji before later blocking her number[4 cited 7.8.23]

The woman used a service that has an assistant to read out messages, but the employer thought it was a prank.

Subsequent exchanges between the pair were found by an employment tribunal to have caused the woman ‘significant offence’ and she was awarded over £7k.

The UK Disability Survey research quizzed 14,491 people, and only a quarter of disabled people and carers felt they had the same promotion opportunities at work as their colleagues[5 cited 7.8.23]

The foreword to the report said its findings highlight the need to improve support for disabled people to start or stay in work, to create more inclusive workplaces where disabled employees have equal chance to progress, and to strengthen rights in the workplace for both disabled people and carers.

Disability discrimination at work is a serious issue, which can destroy careers and wreck lives.

Clearly understanding what a disability is and how to prevent discrimination is essential for all employers, regardless of the size of an organisation.


What is a disability?

You are defined as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities[6 cited 7.8.23]

There are some conditions and impairments that are automatically protected under disability discrimination law.

  • Cancer
  • An HIV infection
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • A visual impairment – if someone is certified as blind, severely sight impaired, sight impaired or partially sighted.

Someone with a progressive condition such as Alzheimer's, motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's, is considered by law to have a disability as soon as it starts to have an effect on their normal day-to-day activities, as long as it is likely to be long-term.

A disability can be physical, mental, sensory, cognitive or a combination.

Disabilities can be obvious and also hidden. It is non-visible disabilities, which are not necessarily obvious to all, that appear to be a problem for many employers.

Some examples of such disabilities include:

  • Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder


  • Autism or Asperger syndrome


  • A learning disability, such as dyslexia or ADHD


  • A chronic illness or pain condition, such as diabetes, arthritis or fibromyalgia.


  • Hearing or vision loss.

Any employee with any type of disability may face work-related challenges and difficulties.

It is important that all workers feel valued and that those with a disability are treated with respect and dignity and given the same rights as everyone else.


How should and employer support and employee with a disability?

All employers are under a legal and moral duty to provide support and take all reasonable steps to prevent any employee with a  disability from suffering discrimination, harassment, or victimisation.

Some of the ways in which an organisation can provide support include:

  • Where an employer is aware, or should reasonably be aware, an employee has a disability, it should consider making reasonable adjustments to remove or reduce any workplace disadvantages the individual may face[7 cited 7.8.23].

Examples of reasonable adjustments can include making a building accessible for an employee who uses a wheelchair; providing the right technology for dyslexic or sight-impaired individuals; and allowing working from home opportunities for those with long-term conditions that may struggle to attend the workplace.


  • Remove any stigma and talk openly and honestly about disability, which can help to create a safe and comfortable working environment where employees can disclose their disability if they wish to do so, and ask for support.


  • Education and raising awareness are key. Training and informing staff about different types of disabilities, how they affect people, and how to prevent discrimination, can help to build an inclusive workplace and create a positive culture.

These are just three ways in which all employers can provide practical support.

Every situation is, obviously, not the same and different support may be required in specific cases.

It is why it is essential that employers consult with an employee who has a disability to best understand what they need, and to be able to tailor any support to meet those needs,


So what is disability discrimination?

Disability discrimination is when you are treated less well or put at a disadvantage for a reason that relates to your disability in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act [cited 7.8.23]

The treatment could be a one-off action, the application of a rule or policy or the existence of physical or communication barriers which make accessing something difficult or impossible.

The discrimination does not have to be intentional to be unlawful.

There are six main types of disability discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination


  • Indirect discrimination


  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments


  • Discrimination arising from disability


  • Harassment


  • Victimisation



How to deal with complaint

If you are an employer and you have received a complaint of disability discrimination, you should take it very seriously.

Deal with it without unreasonable delay, handle it fairly and sensitively, conduct a thorough and fair investigation and follow a full and reasonable procedure.

If you are an employer and you require expert help to handle a complaint of disability discrimination contact our Employer Support Centre or call us today for a free initial consultation on 0333 772 0611

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