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World Cup 2014: Is your business ready for kick-off?

Ben Gorner, a Partner in our Birmingham office, comments: The 2014 World Cup is nearly upon us. The first game kicks off in Brazil on 12 June 2014. With the time difference in the UK’s favour, the matches will be screened early or late evening and may therefore have less of an impact on employers than in 2010.  However, for businesses which do not operate a traditional 9-5 working day, the World Cup will still have an impact – and all businesses potentially face issues in respect of the mornings after the nights before.

As employees look forward to the games ahead, I take a look at some of the common issues facing employers.

We would like to offer some flexibility to employees during the World Cup to discourage unauthorised absence.  What are our options?

Although there is no obligation on an employer to accommodate its staff during the World Cup, there are a number of options open to employers who wish to demonstrate some flexibility.  The options include:

  • allowing staff to work flexible hours, for example allowing late starts or early finishes
  • allowing staff to swap shifts with employees who do not wish to watch the football
  • allowing unpaid leave if the employee’s absence can be accommodated by the business
  • setting up workplace screenings
  • allowing staff to listen to matches by radio or via online streaming

How should we deal with multiple requests for time off on the same day from different employees who want to watch key games or who do not want to come into work the morning after an important match?

An employer is under no obligation to agree to requests to time off, simply because of the World Cup.  Holiday requests should be considered under the employer’s procedures in the normal way, and staff should be reminded about this.  Alternatively, if an employer wishes to be more flexible for the duration of the World Cup, any variations to its holiday policy should be clearly communicated to staff.  The needs of the business are likely to affect how many requests can be accommodated but employers should ensure that they deal with requests fairly and that any decisions do not discriminate against protected groups. It is essential to manage employee expectations to minimise staff disappointment and maintain good employee relations.

An employee was refused annual leave to watch an England game.  On the day itself, he rang in sick.  Can we discipline him?

Employers should not automatically assume that sickness absence during the World Cup is not genuine.  However, if an employer suspects that an employee has not been genuinely ill, it should investigate the matter fully.  If the employer obtains evidence which indicates that the absence is not genuine it would be legitimate to take the matter further and hold a disciplinary hearing.  If the employer forms a reasonable belief during the disciplinary process that the employee has falsely reported sickness absence this is likely to warrant disciplinary action in accordance with the employer’s policies and procedures.

We plan to screen key games during working hours at the work premises.  Will we be liable for any banter which goes on during the game?

Screening key games may be welcomed by the workforce.  However, employers will be vicariously liable for any discriminatory banter which may arise between employees.  For example, if an employee feels that racial banter is making the environment offensive or hostile, they may be able to bring a successful claim for harassment.   In order to seek to avoid liability, it is important that employers review and communicate their equal opportunities policy, and accompany it with appropriate training, and consider publishing separate guidance to its employees on the conduct expected during any screened games.

We plan to screen key games during working hours at work premises.  Employees with no interest in these games, will be expected to work as normal.  Does this raise any issues?

While there is no obligation on employers to screen any of the key games during working hours, if an employer chooses to do so it must ensure that its decision does not discriminate against any protected groups within its workforce.  A policy requiring employees who do not wish to watch any games to work as normal may indirectly discriminate against some protected groups, for example it may put women or some nationalities at a particular disadvantage.  Although indirect discrimination can be justified it may be difficult to establish this in the circumstances.

We are allowing some flexibility to our workforce during the World Cup.  One of our employees has requested that a similar policy is applied during Wimbledon.  Do we have to agree to this?

Whilst there is no obligation on an employer to allow flexibility during the World Cup, if it chooses to do so it should consider whether a refusal to apply a similar policy during other sporting events which might be better enjoyed by, for example, women, or a different age group, will discriminate against any members of its workforce.

We anticipate that a number of our employees will keep track of World Cup matches via the internet.  Should we allow this?

There is no obligation on an employer to allow its employees to use the internet during working hours to keep track of World Cup matches.  However, an employer should decide its policy on this in advance of the World Cup and ensure that whatever it decides is communicated to employees and then consistently enforced.

Should we put in place a sporting events policy?

Employers should carefully review their existing policies and procedures to consider whether they adequately deal with staff issues arising out of the World Cup.  These are likely to include absence management, disciplinary and holiday procedures and any policies relating to equal opportunities, internet usage and alcohol.   Where these do not deal with all the issues likely to arise during the World Cup, it may be appropriate to consider putting in place a separate sporting events policy.  This policy would allow the employer to specify its approach to sporting events and the expectations it has of its employees.  This will assist both employers and employees to plan ahead and facilitate open communication.

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