Open plan office spaces are preferred by many and make good business sense – but they do not suit everyone. An employer found that out to its cost after being ordered to pay substantial damages to an autistic worker who felt overwhelmed by his flexible working environment.

The analyst worked in an open plan setting with a busy walkway directly behind him. There was a flow of different personnel sitting near to him and his workstation was sometimes occupied by others. Constantly distracted by noise and smells, he felt that his colleagues were not supporting him. He eventually suffered what he described as a breakdown and was signed off sick by his GP.

Recommendations were made – including by his employer’s own occupational health department – in respect of reasonable adjustments that would be required to enable his return to work. However, none of them were implemented before the employer invoked its capability procedure and dismissed him at the end of his fixed-term contract.

After he brought proceedings, an Employment Tribunal (ET) noted that his line manager’s primary concern was the date of his return to work rather than his disability. No reasonable steps were taken to understand or cater for the substantial disadvantage that he endured when compared with his neurotypical colleagues.

In upholding his complaints of indirect disability discrimination and a failure to make reasonable adjustments, the ET found that the employer had used dismissal as a tool to rid itself of a disabled worker. The man was awarded a total of £34,458 in compensation, including almost £12,000 in respect of lost earnings and £9,500 for injury to feelings.

Basic guidance for employers who believe that an employee may have autism or another type of neurodivergence, such as ADHD or dyslexia is available from ACAS: As with any case where an employee may require reasonable adjustments in the workplace, employers are well advised to seek specific occupational health advice before considering any change.

For further advice on balancing a request for adjustments against business needs, please contact us.