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'World Cup concessions must be equally applied'

posted 14 years ago

Companies must be careful to ensure that any concessions they make to football fans during this year’s World Cup benefit all workers equally, according to one employment law expert.

Companies should consider relaxing some of their rules to accommodate fans who want to watch important football matches during next month’s World Cup tournament, but should be careful not to discriminate against employees not interested in football said Catherine Hey, an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons.

“Companies should consider allowing temporary flexible work practices for the tournament’s duration,” she said. “Depending on the nature of your business, you could allow employees to work through lunch, modify start and finish times, or allow shift workers to swap shifts with colleagues.”

“You will, however, need to give thought to the consequences of offering preferential treatment to football fans compared to other employees who have made unsuccessful flexible working requests in the past, such as working parents or Wimbledon fans,” said Hey, adding that any relaxation of dress code to allow supporters to wear football strips should also apply to all employees regardless of nationality.

“Keep in mind that not everyone is interested in the ‘beautiful game’ so, to avoid workplace tensions, consider offering equivalent perks to those not glued to their TV screens this summer,” she said.

Hey said that companies will need to consider very seriously how they will treat workers over the coming World Cup, and that there are employment law pitfalls. Employers could well be faced with a rash of unauthorised absences as employees pretend to be sick while actually watching games that occur during their working hours. This potential problem will only partially be alleviated by the fact that England has only one scheduled game in the group stages during the office working day.

“Unauthorised absence during the World Cup – either to watch the matches or to recover from excesses the night before – is a concern for employers,” she said. “Shift workers will clearly be affected and the UK’s diverse workforce means that employees will be following other nations’ progress as well, where the games kick off varyingly at 12.30pm, 3pm or 7.30pm. This means that ‘World Cup sickies’ are still likely to be a problem for many employers this summer.”

Hey said that employers should remind employees of the company’s existing holiday policy and if demand for certain days off is high consider operating a specific holiday policy to allocate leave on a random selection or first-come first-served basis.

Companies should even think about screening the matches at work, she said. “Consider allowing key matches during working hours, such as England v Slovenia, to be watched on television at work – this beats multiple full or half day unauthorised absences and is a morale booster,” she said.

Hey said that employees’ behaviour throughout the World Cup period will need to be monitored to ensure that the company is not exposed to liabilities because of that behaviour. Workers may be more likely to be drunk at work, in which case a company should remind all employees before the tournament of their obligations under company rules.

“If you do not already have a drug and alcohol policy in place you should ideally put one in place before the World Cup starts and communicate it to employees, explaining that disciplinary action will follow a breach of the rules,” she said. “At the very least, you should set out the rules of acceptable standards of conduct.”

Companies should also be careful about what behaviour they tolerate when it comes to nation-supporting. Teasing of the supporters of one team by the supporters of another could spill over into ground covered by race discrimination laws, she warned.

“You should watch that enthusiastic support for one national team does not flow over into inappropriate taunting of another teams’ supporters, in order to avoid race discrimination claims. Employers will be liable for unlawful conduct committed by their employees in the course of their employment – unless they can show that they took reasonable preventative steps,” she said.

Though some employers will want to circulate IT usage policies ahead of the tournament to remind workers that excessive use of the internet to follow football news is against its policies, employers should accept that they may not get quite as much out of their staff this summer as they otherwise would.

“Employers might need to accept that a slight dip in productivity during the World Cup is inevitable. The key for employers and HR professionals is to plan ahead. Planning ahead will involve finding solutions for your organisation and ensuring employees are clear on what is considered acceptable behaviour in the office for the duration of the World Cup,” she said. “With any luck your generous spirit will be rewarded by higher productivity and staff retention levels after the tournament.”

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