Ask the panel

October 20, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a lecturer in an old university. I have been living with bipolar disorder since my teens and have it under control. I last had a serious episode five years ago when the university allowed me one month off work. I have always found I can be open about my condition at work. But we recently had a new head of department. I had a blunt exchange with him about a postgraduate course. I did not think any more of it until he called me into his office and asked whether my condition was affecting my work. I was shocked and said 'no'. I do not know whether to stay quiet or seek to educate him.

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Deciding whether to tell people at work about your mental health problem can be tricky. You are not bound to disclose details to your employer. But you must not lie if you want the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act. You could risk dismissal if your employer finds out that you have lied.

"Some people prefer not to tell an employer because they are afraid they will be discriminated against. Others are more open because they want their employer to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to manage better at work. It may help to talk it through with your union representative or with someone who has experience of this kind of dilemma.

"The Trades Union Congress and the Disability Rights Commission both encourage people to disclose where possible, as the employer is then in a much better position to make reasonable adjustments if need be.

"Under the DDA 1995 it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a disabled person. An employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that no provision, criterion or practices they apply, or physical features in the workplace, put a disabled employee at a substantial disadvantage compared with a non-disabled employee. Making assumptions about an employee's capabilities or treating them less favourably than others is unlawful. You may wish to point this out to your head of department."

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Your new head of department seems to be insinuating that you are performing poorly for a disability-related reason, an allegation that has never been made about you before. This is potentially an incidence of disability-related harassment, which could amount to disability discrimination under the DDA.

The law describes harassment as 'unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating the disabled person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him'.

"The behaviour you are unhappy with could amount to disability discrimination, and being aware of your rights opens up options. It may mean that you are less worried about the consequences of 'educating' your head of department about the potential unlawfulness of his behaviour. Doing so could reap benefits for you and for colleagues, including those who haven't disclosed disability status.

"You may wish to seek legal advice from your trade union or another source. Your adviser is likely to recommend resolving the situation informally, but will be able to provide you with information to support you in this approach, including advice on statutory dispute resolution procedures.

"You appear to be in a strong position. You have already disclosed the fact that you have bipolar disorder - only 2 per cent of staff in higher education institutions disclose disability status to their employer, despite the fact that an estimated 16 per cent of adults of working age are disabled. This is perhaps the time to use your knowledge of disability rights to ensure that your head of department does not continue with such behaviour."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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