When FIFA's football fest kicks off in June employers might take a flexible attitude to staff requests to watch matches but, as Lucy Lillywhite explains, it's wise to have ground rules in place before anyone is tempted to take liberties.
The FIFA World Cup starts on 11 June and, with many already predicting massive losses to businesses due to unauthorised staff absences, it is essential that employers take proactive steps to ensure absenteeism is kept to a minimum.
Although the England fixtures in the group stage should not cause too many problems (with only one match being on a weekday during normal working hours) it is likely that, as the competition progresses, employers will see an increase in unauthorised absences of employees, either as a result of wanting to watch a match or to recover from the celebrations the night before.
During this time it is important for employers to remember that there is a huge amount of goodwill that can be gained by accommodating employee requests to follow matches. Especially given the recent economic downturn, offering flexible options to employees is an excellent way to thank and engage staff in an otherwise difficult time.
There are a number of steps employers can take to reduce the risk of employees pulling "sickies" on match days:
• Ensure clear rules and procedures are in place for dealing with any absences.
• Send a memo to all employees explaining the company's plans and expectations during the World Cup period.
• Encourage employees to book holidays on the match dates they wish to view. Inform staff that annual leave will not be unreasonably refused, but may not be granted in order to maintain minimum staffing levels.
• Consider implementing flexible working practices so employees can make up time to watch their preferred games.
• Allow employees to watch key matches on TV in the canteen or another communal area. This is a relatively easy way to give office-based employees access to the games in real time.
• Consider encouraging employees to bring in flags and banners and allowing employees to wear their team's shirts on match days.
Ensuring fairness during this time is critical. Not everyone is interested in football. Even though it is likely that younger males will be first in line for holiday around the World Cup period, employers must ensure holiday is granted fairly, otherwise they could face allegations of sex discrimination.
Ways to ensure fairness are:
• Relax holiday rules temporarily, such as the cap on the number of employees allowed off at the same time.
• Ensure that the same level of flexibility and perks are given to non-England supporters in relation to other key matches.
• Offer similar non-football-related perks to non-football fans.
• Offer flexible working options to all employees, regardless of whether they are football fans or not.
• Provide football-free areas.
It is important to explain to employees how unauthorised absences will be dealt with before the start of the World Cup.
An easy way to convey this message is to issue a policy to all staff clearly setting out the parameters that will be applied during the World Cup period. Staff should also be made aware that all unauthorised absences will be dealt with according to the disciplinary procedures in place.
Other measures that can be adopted to ensure unauthorised absences are minimised are:
• Making it clear that employees absent without authorisation will not be paid for the time worked.
• Implementing return-to-work interviews for every employee on their return to work from an absence (even if this was not the prior practice).
• If a pattern of absence is found for an employee during the World Cup, consider whether disciplinary action will be taken.
• Ensure all absences are generally scrutinised more closely throughout the World Cup period.
Careful planning is essential to ensure the World Cup period runs as smoothly as possible for businesses and that everyone is given the opportunity to enjoy the event. If employers are flexible in their approach, they will find that employees are less likely to take unauthorised absences and any losses over the World Cup period will be kept to a minimum.
Many employers are taking the view that the World Cup provides an excellent opportunity to increase goodwill among employees and is not just a potential menace to productivity.
Lucy Lillywhite is a trainee solicitor at Charles Russell