Employers will need to tighten up discrimination and flexible working policies following a landmark disability decision, which is almost certain to give rise to new rights for millions of workers, legal experts have warned.
An advocate-general at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirmed last week that employee Sharon Coleman suffered ‘discrimination by association’ as a carer.
Coleman is suing her employer, Attridge Law, claiming she was forced to quit her job after she requested time off to look after her four-year-old disabled son.
The opinion, likely to be approved by the ECJ later this year, could mean that the millions of workers who care for disabled people will be able to claim unlimited discrimination damages if their employer treats them worse than non-carers.
It could pave the way for discrimination claims on the grounds of association with people of different ages, religions, or sexual orientation.
Nick Thomas, senior associate at law firm Jones Day, told Personnel Today: “Instead of liability being limited to failing to comply with a request for flexible working, employers could face discrimination claims with uncapped damages.”
He warned: “Employers need to review their harassment or discrimination policies to ensure they are broad enough to prevent people not only from making comments about the [minority] individual, but about anybody associated with them.
“They must make it clear that any behaviour, comments, or jokes that anybody might find offensive is caught by the policy,” he added.
Firms are also likely to need to review absence policies, specifying clearly where it is acceptable for employees to take time off, according to Anita Rai, senior associate at Fox Solicitors.
Kate Groucutt, senior policy officer at charity Carers UK, said: “This case will produce a major shift in the workplace. If employers want to retain their employees, this is common sense.”
The route to court
Sharon Coleman joined Attridge Law as a legal secretary in 2001. In 2002, she gave birth to a son with serious respiratory problems. She claims managers called her “lazy” when she requested time off to care for him. She accepted voluntary redundancy, but later brought a claim for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination.