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Tribunal finds Cloud Imperium Games discriminated against disabled employee with return-to-office policy

The Star Citizen developer dismissed a disabled worker who sought to continue working remotely following the pandemic.

Chris Kerr, News Editor

July 1, 2024

6 Min Read
The Cloud Imperium Games office in Manchester
Image via Cloud Imperium Games

A UK employment tribunal has ordered Star Citizen developer Cloud Imperium Games (CIG) to pay almost £30,000 ($38,000) in compensation for discriminating against a disabled worker.

The studio was taken to tribunal by senior programmer Paul Ah-Thion (the claimant) after rolling out a return-to-office policy that failed to accommodate his needs as a disabled person diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The claimant was hired by CIG in 2018 and made the company aware of his disability at the beginning of his tenure. Although he initially worked from the company's office in Wilmslow, the COVID-19 pandemic required staff to work remotely.

As noted in the Tribunal Judgement sent to Game Developer, upon emerging from the pandemic, the studio opened a new office in Manchester and sought to relocate its workforce. However, during the pandemic, Ah-Thion found working from home to be more accommodating of his disabilities.

Rather than move to the Manchester office, the claimant asked CIG for a permanent remote working arrangement. The request was swiftly denied. CIG refused to change its stance despite repeat requests and eventually dismissed Ah-Thion in July 2022.

During the tribunal, CIG branded itself as a "start-up" enterprise—despite boasting over 400 employees—and attempted to argue the claimant had suffered from performance issues related to his remote working setup. It also claimed he was unable to meet certain job criteria, such as mentoring junior staffers, when working remotely.

The tribunal, however, found "there was no specific issue with the claimant's performance in relation to working from home as opposed to his performance generally." A witness for CIG stated the company was taking a "tougher" stance on working from home, but despite the alleged issues with the claimant's performance, never formally asked him to return to the office.

"The Tribunal finds that the respondent's concern about the claimant's performance seemed rather retrospective in the sense that whilst the claimant was employed the respondent never formally investigated those concerns," reads the judgment.

"The Tribunal finds that if the respondent had a serious concern about the claimant's performance they failed to give any evidence to suggest why they could not monitor it successfully remotely whilst he was working from home. Normal performance measures, such as performance targets and regular review meetings, could have been dealt with online."

Taking those points into consideration, along with the claimant's admission that working in-office often left him "exhausted and distressed," the tribunal found that CIG could have made the "reasonable adjustment" of allowing Ah-Thion to work from home permanently. In refusing to do so, the studio was found to have acted in a discriminatory and disproportionate manner.

"The Tribunal finds the respondent cannot satisfy us that terminating the claimant's employment was proportionate. We rely on the fact we have found that working from home was a reasonable adjustment which would have alleviated the substantial disadvantage to the claimant. There is no evidence that working from home would have failed to achieve the respondent’s legitimate aim of ensuring the acceptable performance of a senior gameplay programmer," reads the judgment.

"We find there was a failure of the respondent to understand the nature of the claimant’s autism. It was a condition of his autism that he struggled with his duties to act as a coach, reviewer and mentor to the junior members of the team. The evidence shows that the claimant was struggling to do this when he worked in the office. [...] We find that the respondent has treated the claimant unfavorably because of something arising in consequence of his disability. They have been unable to show that dismissal was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim and accordingly the claimant's claim succeeds."

CIG has been ordered to pay the claimant £27,748 in compensation. That includes loss of earnings totaling £14,045.31 and £12,000 for injury to feelings.

"Employers should be careful of mistaking a disability for weakness"

Speaking to Game Developer, Ah-Thion said he remains proud of his work at CIG and described many of his colleagues as "great people." He also, however, told us the experience was soured during his last nine months at the studio, where he was "shocked to see how ready CIG management were to ignore my disability and gaslight me about my work."

Ah-Thion said he feels "vindicated" following the outcome of the tribunal. "I've been fighting this by myself for two years, and being autistic made the whole process especially challenging. But we're lucky to have the employment tribunal system, where an ordinary person can actually find justice without having to bankrupt themselves on legal fees," he continued.

"It was clear to me from the start that CIG didn't want people to work from home after the expense of their new Manchester office, and worked backwards from that to retroactively conjure up reasons why my request should be denied, something they continued to do right up until the final tribunal hearing—all while ignoring disability legislation. It was gratifying that the tribunal saw through them as easily as they did."

He also suggested that some employers might have a "tick-box mentality" when it comes to accommodating disabled workers, "where sending a manager on a two-hour course about a disability is all they need to do."

"In reality, each disabled worker is different, and the simplest and best course is to talk to them, ideally on a semi-regular basis and outside the normal performance review process—and employers should be careful of mistaking a disability for weakness," he added.

Game Developer reached out to Kuits employment solicitor Jake McManus to learn how employers in England and Wales can support disabled workers, and how those with disabilities can hold employers to account.

He explained employers have a "legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for disabled workers," and said they must refrain from using a "blanket one-size-fits all" approach when identifying which adjustments should be made.

"They should tailor the adjustments to that individual and their specific needs. Employers should monitor these adjustments to make sure that they are working and the employee continues to be supported, and be flexible with making further adjustments if required," said McManus.

"This can be difficult with invisible disabilities such as autism, as it may not be immediately apparent how a condition affects the employee at work, or whether they have a disability in the first place. However, employers cannot rely on ignorance: if there are indications that an employee may be disabled then they should take steps to investigate it further. An Employment Tribunal will not be afraid to hold an employer liable if they reasonably ought to have known of the disability and did not carry out the necessary investigations, which would have ultimately revealed the disability."

McManus' advice for workers is to inform employers of their disability when they commence employment. This ensures an employer will have no doubt as to their legal obligations. "If an employee believes that they are being treated less fairly than other colleagues because of their disability, or because of something that is a consequence of their disability, then they should bring this to their employer's attention so that it can be addressed," he continued.

"Employees should be aware that any workplace policy or procedure that leaves them at a disadvantage compared to other, non-disabled employees, could be discriminatory. In this case, the company’s policy of requiring senior gameplay programmers to work from the office left Mr Ah-Thion, a person with autism, at a disadvantage due to his social interaction difficulties."

Game Developer has reached out to CIG for comment.

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Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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