House of Commons bosses discriminated against disabled worker in ‘hot desk’ row, tribunal rules

A House of Commons manager has won a discrimination claim after colleagues used her workspace to “hot desk” and bosses threatened to discipline her for leaving a note asking them not to.

Alison Baker had a modified workstation, including a special chair, to help her manage neck and back problems.

However, because of overcrowding in the office, managers allowed other staff to use the desk while she was away, an employment tribunal heard.

And when the Palace of Westminster collections manager left a “polite” note asking staff not to sit there in her absence, bosses started disciplinary proceedings against her for what they saw as an “unreasonable” request.

Now she is in line for compensation after the court ruled that she had been victimized and discriminated against.

Specialist equipment ordered

Ms Baker began working for the House of Commons Commission in 1991, the hearing in central London was told.

In 2005, she began experiencing musculoskeletal symptoms. Specialist equipment, including an orthopedic swivel chair, was recommended to reduce the need for her to twist her neck or back.

In 2014, she was appointed database manager of the Commons’ architecture and heritage team. Her role included the “crucial” task of arranging the care of the “architectural fabric and decorative arts” in the Palace of Westminster.

The team moved offices within the same building at 7 Millbank, a few minutes down the road from the Commons, where most desk-based staff are located, in April 2016.

Equipment ‘altered’ after returning from sickness

In June 2018, Ms Baker fell on the street and injured her knee, which led to her being signed off sick from work for more than a month.

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When she returned to work that August, Ms Baker told the tribunal her equipment, including her chair, desk and workstation, had been “drastically altered or moved”.

Ms Baker, the court heard, took this as a “personal threat” and a “complete violation of her identity”.

She emailed bosses about her desk and was told: “The desk you sit at will have been used by people hot-desking.”

Office space was ‘at a premium’

Ms Baker told the court that she found it difficult to adjust her equipment to again make them suitable to her needs.

But Donald Grant, her line manager, told the court that office space was “at a premium” at the time and there were “fewer than 0.8 desks per person”.

Ms Baker, however, disputed the need for hot-desking and said there were other rooms available to staff.

The following month, the court heard that an occupational health report recommended Ms Baker’s desk “not be used as a hot desk” as she “needs to have her own dedicated workstation”.

‘Polite notice’ to workers ignored

Ms Baker also posted a “polite notice” on her desk asking for it not to be used when she was away.

However, in Sep 2018 after returning to work following a medical appointment the day before, she found her notice had been ignored and her orthopedic chair was “altered” again.

At the end of the month, Ms Baker was invited to a disciplinary hearing which included the allegation that she had “unreasonably” placed a note on her desk to warn colleagues against using it as a hot desk.

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The allegation was later removed in a revised invitation, the court was told.

Ms Baker again went on sick leave in October, citing workplace stress, and brought her court claims in Jan 2019.

Employee ‘was unfavourably treated’

Judge Jillian Brown has now ruled that Ms Baker had been treated unfavourably after bosses took disciplinary action against her.

She said: “The House of Commons Commission had a practice of allowing hot-desking on all desks. It accepted Ms Baker would have been put at a substantial disadvantage by this practice. Her workstation and equipment had been adapted for her needs, to prevent injury and discomfort.

“After returning to work after a one-day absence, Ms Baker returned to find someone had altered her workplace-adjusted chair despite her polite notice asking colleagues not to use her desk. Ms Baker’s polite note of her … was clearly something arising in consequence of her disability of her.

“The Tribunal concluded that Mr Grant initiating disciplinary action against her for leaving the note was unfavorable treatment.”

Ms Baker’s claims of failure to make reasonable adjustments were also successful, with the court ruling it was “reasonable” for Ms Baker to expect her desk to remain free during an absence of just one day.

Other claims of sex and disability discrimination, victimization and disability discrimination were dismissed.

A further hearing to decide upon compensation will be held in due course.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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