In the legal case Follows v Nationwide Building Society, an employee was awarded almost £350,000 in compensation after successfully claiming unfair dismissal and indirect disability discrimination by association. The case serves as a stark reminder for employers to exercise caution when imposing mandates for employees to return to the office, particularly without considering individual circumstances.
The employment tribunal’s ruling underscored that dismissing an employee who was the primary caregiver for her disabled mother, merely because she refused to work from the office, amounted to unfair dismissal and indirect disability discrimination by association. This decision highlights the potential pitfalls of requiring employees to return to the office, especially when they have caregiving responsibilities. The employee’s office-based requirement placed her at a unique disadvantage during the redundancy process, compared to her colleagues without such responsibilities.
Employers should take note of the lessons to be learned from this case, as the consequences of overlooking individual circumstances can be financially substantial. The world of work has witnessed significant changes in recent years, driven by technological advancements and the transformative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As businesses adapt to these changing work environments, they must ensure that employment contracts and workplace policies are comprehensive and updated to reflect the new reality.
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However, some employers are increasingly encouraging in-office attendance, and they must be acutely aware of the legal implications of issuing such mandates. They should engage in individual consultations with employees to evaluate how returning to the office might negatively impact them, particularly if they have specific characteristics protected by the law.
Any necessary adjustments to enable office working, in conjunction with an employee’s personal circumstances and performance, should be assessed before making final decisions. Clear and timely communication is vital to prevent potential unfair dismissal, constructive unfair dismissal or discrimination claims. This case serves as a powerful reminder that discrimination does not need to be directly targeted at an employee; it can be associative. Legal advice should be sought before taking any action against an employee for refusing to work from the office.
In conclusion, this case underscores the importance of considering individual circumstances and the legal implications of mandating office-based work. Employers should proceed with caution, engaging in open dialogue with their employees and seeking legal counsel when necessary to avoid costly litigation and ensure fair treatment in the workplace.
Ella Bond is a senior employment solicitor at Harper James