Car dealership Charles Hurst ordered to pay £12k to worker with mental health problems who wanted her hours cut
A woman has been awarded almost £12,000 after taking a disability discrimination case against a high-profile Northern Ireland car dealership.
Charles Hurst Limited failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments for Marie-Claire McLaughlin, who was employed as a customer service adviser, an industrial tribunal found.
Ms McLaughlin (31), from Dundrum in Co Down, had been employed by the company since July 2012. She previously suffered from mental ill-health and had absences from work due to bouts of depression and panic attacks.
In an average week she worked 47.8 hours, including Saturday mornings, and applied to reduce her hours to 40 a week. In her application, she made specific reference to her disability and the severe impact it was having on her and work colleagues.
However, the tribunal found her request was not appropriately considered, awarding her £11,840.
Ms McLaughlin said: "I had suffered previously from mental ill-health, and I believed a reduction in my hours would help me to cope better and enable me to improve my performance at work.
"My employer didn't seem to grasp how serious an impact this was having on my life, inside and outside of work. I couldn't believe this was happening to me, the stress of the whole situation did not help my mental health, it just added to the pressure."
Charles Hurst said it vehemently opposed all forms of discrimination.
A company spokesman said: "This case draws attention to key learnings for every employer and we note the industrial tribunal's judgment and the decisions made.
"Charles Hurst Group vehemently opposes all forms of unlawful or unfair discrimination and notes that the tribunal acknowledged that the company did not discriminate against Ms McLaughlin on the grounds of her disability.
"The tribunal also ruled, unanimously, that neither did the company victimise nor harass the claimant.
"We fully accept, however, the tribunal's one ruling that the length of time which was taken to implement a reduction in working hours was too long and we deeply regret any distress this caused."
The tribunal heard that the timeframe for dealing with Ms McLaughlin's request for reduced hours was long and drawn out.
It took 14 months in all and the tribunal considered that this was at least four and a half months too long.
The tribunal stated: "Had the employer focused correctly on the concept of reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and taken a proactive approach to the matter, all members of the tribunal are satisfied that the claimant would have had the benefit of the reduced hours she sought at an earlier stage."
Dr Michael Wardlow from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland said there is a need for employers to be more pro-active in addressing issues around mental health.
He added: "Proper - and timely - management of this issue should be an important focus for all employers.
"The tribunal noted that, when the adjustments were put in place, Ms McLaughlin had little or no absence from work and she found it much easier to get the job done.
"This highlights the fact that reasonable adjustments, while required by legislation to benefit people with disabilities, can also benefit business through outcomes such as improved attendance and increased productivity."