There is an increasing tendency for employers to use online services in order to carry out HR related functions, including assessments, job interviews and appraisals. This can be daunting even for the most confident and well-equipped candidates and employees. I have recently witnessed such a process in action, with an international employer using an American Company to carry out initial interviews on a system similar to Skype but with time limits for replies in the style of a TV quiz show.
While this may be something that many candidates and employees will just have to get on with, it has the capacity to present fairly obvious problems for those who are disabled or have other protected characteristics within the meaning of the relevant sections of the Equality Act 2010. As an aside, it also seems to provide almost the polar opposite of providing fair opportunities by anonymising applications for employment.
The issue of discrimination and online assessments was to the fore in the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal case of Muzi-Mabaso v Commissioners for HMRC. Mr Muzi-Mabaso joined HMRC as a Grade AA employee in September 2004. As was known to the employer he suffered from depression and was a disabled person for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, thereby obliging the employer to make reasonable adjustments where necessary to take into account the effects of the disability.
In 2010 Mr Muzi-Mabaso was temporarily promoted to Grade Band O and undertook training over two years with a view to possible promotion to Grade HO. He did not pass the required module and therefore reverted to Grade AA with effect from 28 November 2011. However there was little available work for Grade AA employees. Mr Muzi-Mabaso was on sick leave from 14 November 2011 to 22 April 2012, having been certified as suffering from stress and depression. Efforts were made to find a post for him but he was told that promotion opportunities could arise only as a result of open competition. Shortly before he returned from sickness absence he was place in a redeployment pool. After six months in the pool, if a job had not been found, an employee would be deemed surplus, thereby opening the possibility of redundancy.
In April 2012 Mr Muzi-Mabaso brought to the employer’s attention his phobia of the job application process. He said that going through the process was very stressful for him and therefore put him at a disadvantage by reason of his disability. He submitted an application for a Grade O vacancy. However, he said that he could not complete the online test as part of the process because he was too stressed due to his disabilities, specifically his frame of mind and phobias.
An offer was made for his manager to sit in with him and talk him through the questions. He was also offered a private room with a computer and extra time to complete the form. There was also a discussion about doing a paper test. However all these options were rejected by him. His application was kept open pending further medical reports. The employer took the view that excepting him from the online process was not a reasonable adjustment, not least because of the high number of applicants, many of whom needed reasonable adjustments for medical reasons.
Mr Muzi-Mabaso brought two claims before the Employment Tribunal: indirect disability discrimination on the basis that he was part of a disadvantaged group and direct disability discrimination on the basis of alleged failure to make reasonable adjustments in his case. Both claims failed and a costs order of £5000 was made in favour of HMRC.
On appeal it was held that Mr Muzi-Mabaso had not suffered any particular disadvantage by being placed in the redeployment pool. The main issue was the online test and Her Honour Judge Eady QC had trouble with the Employment Tribunal’s reasoning in concluding that Mr Muzi-Mabaso was not placed at a substantial disadvantage in this regard. In effect the Employment Tribunal had set too high a test for demonstrating particular disadvantage. There were less discriminatory alternatives suggested by Mr Muzi-Mabaso including making an exception for him (as had been the case for blind candidates who had not been offered a Braille version of the test) or proceeding on the basis of a management recommendation. Judge Eady was not satisfied that the Employment Tribunal had carried out the requisite balancing act and it was not shown that there was not a substantial disadvantage. In other words making the online test compulsory did constitute a failure to make reasonable adjustments so the claim of disability discrimination was made out. Since this part of the appeal was successful the costs award in favour of HMRC could not reasonably stand.