One week in to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and there has already been plenty of action and controversy on the pitch. With matches scheduled daily between Friday 18th September and Saturday 31st October, this article examines some of the issues that employers should be prepared to address over the next few weeks.
 
Time off and unauthorised absence
 
The prospect of a ‘big match’ during working hours raises the possibility that a number of employees may all make annual leave requests for the same day or, failing that, employers may notice suspicious blocks of absence due to “illness” that happens to coincide with important games.
 
Annual leave should continue to be booked in the usual way and following the employer’s normal policy, for example on a first come first served basis. Employers may wish to exercise their discretion to allow leave to be booked on shorter notice than usual, as employees will not know in advance whether their team will make it to the quarter-finals, or perhaps whether they will be able to get last-minute tickets to a match. Any sickness absence should also be dealt with in line with the employer’s standard policy.
 
A potential solution to the unauthorised absence issue is to consider allowing employees to work more flexibly throughout this period, for example starting and finishing earlier, or reducing their lunch break. A degree of flexibility is likely to engender good employee relationships; but note that any policy should be applied consistently and with sensitivity.  Not all staff will be rugby fans and it is important that they do not feel that they are being excluded or given a worse deal.
 
Making special arrangements
 
As an alternative to time off, arrangements could be made to allow staff to watch all or part of key matches at work. This could be via live streaming on their own computers  or, to avoid causing disruption in an open plan office, employers could choose to show matches on a TV in a communal area. This also avoids the risk of an IT slow-down if lots of staff are all trying to stream the live coverage at the same time. In either case, employers should consider whether a TV licence might be required. Furthermore, whether either option is appropriate will depend in part upon the nature of the employer’s business, as in some contexts there may be a health and safety concern if employees are distracted while working.
 
Whatever approach is taken, the key is to communicate this to staff clearly and to enforce the rules consistently. If you do not already have an internet use policy then consider introducing one. Remember that if internet use is monitored, this fact must be communicated to employees in order to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998.
 
Avoiding discrimination claims
 
As with any major sporting event, the Rugby World Cup will see emotions and ‘national pride’ running high. It would be timely to give staff a reminder of the employer’s equal opportunity and anti-bullying policies. Although comments may be made in a light-hearted fashion, there is the same potential for offensive comments as in any other context. This will apply not only to comments made in the office, but also to social media use by employees. If there is a social media policy, make sure that employees are aware of it.
 
In Okerago -v- Sanofi-Aventis 2009 the Employment Tribunal held that football ‘banter’ could amount to less favourable treatment on the ground of race / ethnicity / national origin. Upon one employee stating that she would not be supporting England, another individual in the office replied that she should “go back to her own country”. The ruling of race discrimination was later overturned, as the words were spoken by an agency worker rather than an employee, but it nonetheless illustrates the ease with which ‘banter’ about a sporting event can potentially transmute into unacceptable behaviour.
 
In addition to being alive to the risk of harassment-style claims, such as that described above, employers should (as ever) bear in mind whether any temporary policies or procedures being introduced for the duration of the World Cup could give rise to allegations of discrimination. For example, they may be neutral on their face but could have a disproportionate adverse impact upon a particular group with a protected characteristic, e.g. nationality. It is important to recognise the diversity of the UK’s workforce. A policy of only screening England matches, or only allowing England shirts to be worn in the office, would not be a good idea.
 
Conclusion
 
With an awareness of the points outlined above, employers and employees should be able to enjoy an issue-free World Cup. For further tips and suggestions, see the recently published ACAS guidance on this topic, available HERE