With the Olympics officially less than 100 days away, you should be considering how the Games could affect your business, and whether there’s anything you can do to ensure you get through them with the best possible results.
Our guide below deals with some of the key employment law issues arising from the Games to help you keep on track in dealing with any problems which may arise.
A number of our staff wish to take time off to attend the Games and others want time off to watch some of the big events. Do we have to allow them time off even though we have no cover?
There is no statutory entitlement for employees to take time off for the Olympics. Under the Working Time Regulations, provided employees are permitted to take their statutory entitlement during the relevant holiday year, individual requests for holiday can be refused. The employer is under no obligation to consult with the employee or justify its refusal. Employers are advised to check their own contracts and policies, but it is highly unlikely a policy would permit an employee to take time off during a major sporting event. However, if an employee has obtained tickets to attend the Games we would advise employers to permit the holiday request if at all possible. Clearly refusing such a request would damage morale and would do nothing to improve an employee’s loyalty or motivation. Employers should also be aware that if the holiday had previously been approved and the employee had paid for tickets to see an event as a result of receiving that approval, an employer would need an extremely good reason to change its mind. Otherwise this could be seen as a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence which could result in an employee resigning and bringing a constructive unfair dismissal claim.
In relation to employees who simply want time off to watch events at home, while employers are not legally obliged to do so, they may wish to adopt a relatively flexible approach given that the Olympics only comes around every 4 years, and allowing reasonable time off during the Games may help to avoid any disruption caused by absences.
Where the request is simply to leave work slightly early or take half a day’s holiday, employers may wish to consider whether the employee could work flexibly during the Games, e.g. by not taking breaks, starting earlier and finishing earlier or making the time up on another day, and whether half a day’s absence will disrupt the business sufficiently for it to be refused. Shift swaps are also an option, provided employees can arrange appropriate cover with their colleagues. Unpaid leave can also be offered, although again there is no obligation on employers to allow this.
Some larger employers have sought to adopt an “Olympics policy” for the duration of the event to ensure requests for time off are dealt with reasonably and fairly, e.g. on a first come, first served basis. Employers should ensure that employees are aware that any changes to hours or flexible working policies are only in place for the duration of the Games, and do not constitute a permanent variation of their terms and conditions of employment.
It is also important to note that those employees who are not interested in the Games are not treated less favourably than those who are. In particular, granting holidays at short notice or allowing flexible working during the Olympics may be seen as an act of discrimination if, for example, flexible working requests have been turned down in relation to working mothers, or if an employee’s request to time off for a religious holiday has been refused, so employers should act in an even-handed manner in implementing any special practices.
If an employee calls in sick on the day of an important event, can I discipline them if I suspect they are not really ill?
If it appears that an employee is lying about being ill in order to watch a specific event then this may be treated as a disciplinary issue, but employers need to ensure they have sufficient evidence that the employee is not genuinely ill before adopting this approach.
Evidence may include the fact that an employee has previously requested the day off or an earlier finish but that request has been refused. However, an employee is not required by law to obtain medical evidence for absences shorter than 7 days, so it may be very difficult to prove an employee was not genuinely unwell, however coincidental their absence may appear.
In order to head off any potential issues with absence during the Games, employers may wish to reiterate the company policy on notifying absence to employees by way of memo or email, and to state that unauthorised absence from work during the Olympics will be treated as a disciplinary offence. Introducing return to work interviews during the Olympics (if these are not already implemented) may help to avoid “sickies”. If you believe you may be in this situation, please contact a member of the team to discuss it further.
An employee has suggested showing big events on a screen at work. Do we have to do this, and, if we do so, what should we bear in mind?
Allowing staff to watch some of the main events on the premises may generate goodwill and limit the number of sick days taken, but employers should make sure that employees who are not interested in the events are not distracted from work and, if possible, are awarded similar perks.
Please also bear in mind the fact that there may be events which are more significant to employees of different nationalities. Therefore, what is generally seen as a relatively minor event to your British employees might be far more significant for an employee from another country.
Banter between employees of rival nations may also conceivably lead to harassment claims, which employers may be liable for if they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the harassment taking place. Employers may therefore be advised to reiterate equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies and to keep flags and other nationalistic paraphernalia to a minimum in the office.
If an employee asks to work from home during the Olympics, do we have to accommodate this?
There is no absolute right to request home working, but employers should look at each request on its merits. If an employee can do their job from home and can be trusted to carry out their work, this may be an option for employers.
However, there are also sex discrimination considerations to bear in mind. While the Olympics are enjoyed by both men and women, sport can still be seen as a male-dominated arena. If a woman has requested home working in the past and been refused, she may have a claim of less favourable treatment because of her sex if a male comparator has had his request granted.
If a request is granted, it is difficult for an employer to monitor an employee’s output from home to prove they are carrying out a full day’s work. Whilst employee monitoring is permitted, employers must be careful that any monitoring is not so intrusive so as to breach the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee, which in turn may lead to constructive dismissal claims.
Is there any obligation to comply with requests to “dress down” or wear clothes indicating an employee’s support of a particular country?
Most employers will have dress codes either to promote a smart professional appearance or for health and safety reasons. In these cases, employers are well within their rights to insist all dress codes are adhered to during the Olympics, and may discipline those employees who break the rules.
If there is no strict dress code, it may be more difficult to prevent an employee from wearing what they choose, but there is an implied term in all contracts of employment that employees will dress in a manner both suitable and appropriate to the business and will obey the employer’s reasonable orders.
From a race discrimination point of view, employees of other nationalities must also be permitted to wear their countries’ ‘colours’ if British supporters are allowed to do so.
An employee has been on the internet constantly watching events and checking results – can we discipline him?
Excessive use of the internet for non-work related reasons may be a gross misconduct offence, but employers should check their IT and internet policies and warn employees in advance of what levels of usage will and will not be tolerated.
Employers may, however, simply wish to accept that employees will not be quite as productive as usual during the Games, and that taking a more relaxed approach to internet usage now may foster a sense of loyalty and goodwill from employees in the future.
The content of this item does not constitute legal advice and it should not be relied upon. Specific legal advice may be required to address your specific circumstance.