What do employers need to consider when their employees ask to volunteer at the Olympic Games?

London 2012 is getting ready to welcome its first wave of volunteers. Ten thousand happy souls have recently been told that they have been successful in their application to volunteer at the Games, subject to Home Office and CRB checks. Locog, the Games organising committee, plans to make a further 60,000 offers between now and the end of April 2012, having received a total of 250,000 applications for the 70,000 available places. This is a timely reminder that not only are we going to witness the wonder of an archery contest at Lords cricket ground and beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade, but also that many employers in the capital should think about how the Olympic Games will affect their workforce.

Before examining the legal issues, it is worth looking at the commitment the volunteers are being asked to make. A volunteer must commit to a minimum of ten days' volunteering at either the Olympics (27 July – 12 August 2012) or the Paralympics (29 August – 9 September 2012) or 10 days at each. Volunteers also have to be able to attend a minimum of three training days beforehand.

The number of people who have applied to volunteer and the number of places available are impressive, and an indication that many businesses in the UK, and particularly those in London, will shortly be receiving requests from employees for time off to volunteer.

Requests for time off

On receiving a request for time off, the employer should consider if the employee is entitled to time off from work to volunteer, or if they are simply requesting paid or unpaid annual leave. Although there is no statutory right to take time off to volunteer, some businesses operate an employer-supported volunteer scheme. While this is unlikely to entitle employees to volunteer on whichever days they please, it might create an entitlement to a certain amount of additional paid and/or unpaid leave. It would be helpful if the scheme sets out a procedure that both the employee and the employer need to follow when a request is made to volunteer.

If an employee requests annual leave, it should be treated the same way as any other holiday request. However, whereas employees may request more than two weeks' consecutive leave, as 10 days is the minimum acceptable commitment to volunteer for the Olympics, policies or contractual terms may limit the amount of leave that an employee may take to two weeks at one time. Similarly, an employee who wants to volunteer at both the Olympics and the Paralympics will quickly approach the maximum annual leave for most employees. In these circumstances employers may want to consider allowing employees to take unpaid leave or extending employee's allowances.

Employers may consider requests to volunteer for the Olympics in a positive light and may want to support their employees in their endeavours. Allowing employees time off to volunteer may generate goodwill within the workforce and marketplace and help with employee retention and recruitment.

Furthermore – in the case of the Olympics – the employer will receive the benefit of at least three days' free training for each of its volunteer employees. Although not necessarily directly tailored to their roles at work, this training, and the experience of volunteering itself may, for example, improve employees' communication, selfconfidence and team-working skills.

One issue to think about when considering volunteering is health and safety. An employer has a duty to ensure the health and safety of all of its employees while at work, which may extend to their time volunteering, if this is done as part of an employer-supported scheme. In those cases it is advisable for the employer to carry out a risk assessment.

Practical advice

So, where does that leave us?

The most obvious thing is to check the rules, obligations, and procedures of any employer-supported volunteer scheme. Ensure that communication with the employee is carried out appropriately and consider asking employees to give as much advance warning as possible if they wish to volunteer.

Start thinking about how you will approach any requests for holidays of longer than two weeks or requests for unpaid leave to volunteer. If you need a new policy to deal with Olympic volunteers, it is a good idea to put a policy in place now so that everyone is treated consistently.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Olympics and Paralympics are being held during the height of the holiday season. Many customers will be on holiday and business may be slow. There are warnings that London will shut down for the Olympics as people watch the games (using annual leave or perhaps bunking off work), flee the capital on holiday, or simply work from home to avoid potential transport meltdown. London may well be operating at a reduced capacity with fewer workers, and with less work for those people to do. In which case, allowing employees to volunteer at the Olympics could be a better bet than keeping them chained to their desks with nothing to do – or, worse still, dealing with disciplinary procedures if you suspect that employees are calling in sick to be part of the games.

And by the way, in case anyone was wondering, Lords cricket ground recently held an archery test event that was hailed as a huge success, in which everyone fell in love with Lords. We even had two new world records