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London Olympics 2012 - Issues for Employers?

This summer London will host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games.  Some people in the UK were fortunate enough to secure tickets for various events and thousands of others will be hoping to watch the Games on television. 

During key sporting events, surveys have shown that whilst employers do find there is a boost in morale generally, such events do have an adverse effect on productivity and there are often issues with unauthorised absences and time spent during working hours trying to watch the event.  Employers need to make sure they have a plan in place to deal with requests for time off and how to minimise the risk of employees taking unauthorised time off to watch the Games.

Employers may be advised to agree a plan to enable staff, where possible, to watch certain events, where employees do not wish to take annual leave.  This should be expected not only to boost morale, but also reduce the likelihood of employees calling in sick or taking unauthorised absence.  If arrangements are to be made, a policy should be circulated stipulating what these are.  Suggested arrangements include allowing employees to work flexibly (for example allowing them to leave early provided they make the time up) or allowing staff to watch the television or listen to the radio at work during short regular breaks.  Employers should be prepared to answer questions from employees who require time off for non-Olympic related events if they are raised; perhaps by explaining that having the Olympics, which are very popular, in London is very rare and make it clear that it does not wish to extend its measures to other circumstances.

If such a policy is adopted, it should make clear that any arrangements made are entirely at the organisation’s discretion and any abuse will result in the privilege being withdrawn.  In addition the employer should always remind employees that the needs of the business do come first and that, while it will try and accommodate employees’ wishes, there may be times where this is not possible.  Employers should also make sure they have a TV licence in place if employees will be watching the Games at work.

Finally, it’s important to remember that there may be employees of different nationalities who want to watch events involving their own national athletes.  Any policy must apply equally to those employees in respect of events involving such athletes, if race discrimination claims are not to be risked.

Regardless of whether any of the steps suggested above are implemented, if employees are suspected of taking unauthorised absence, the starting point for any employer is to conduct a reasonable investigation.  As in any case where an employee is suspected of lying, unless the employer can show it had reasonable grounds to suspect that the employee was lying about a stated reason for absence (say, sickness), an accusation by an employer that an employee is lying may amount to a fundamental breach of contract enabling an employee to resign and bring claims based on constructive dismissal.

If an employer has reasonable grounds for suspicion then it should utilise the organisation’s disciplinary procedure and ensure it is followed fairly, particularly where an employee has over one year’s continuous service and so has protection against unfair dismissal. (The qualifying period for unfair dismissal protection has increased to two years only for employees whose employment commenced on or after 6 April 2012, which will of course not be a relevant consideration this summer.)

This can often be a particularly difficult issue for employers and so they are advised to contact Lanyon Bowdler’s Employment department for further advice should such a situation arise.