The 2014 World Cup is upon us, with the first game having kicked off in Brazil on 12 June 2014. But what is a high water mark of sports events for fans can be the source of many headaches for employers, who need to be careful not to underestimate the impact of the World Cup.

Most matches will screen at unusual hours. Socceroos games will be screened live in Australia in the early hours of the morning. The time difference is not in Australia's favour.

Some employees may seek time off to view games that fall within their working hours. For others, the time difference may cause a late arrival or absence from work, or increased working from home requests.

As employees look forward to the games, we look at the common issues that arise for employers.

We would like to offer some flexibility to employees during the World Cup to discourage unauthorised absence. What are our options?

Although there is no obligation on an employer to accommodate its staff during the World Cup, there are a number of options open to employers who wish to demonstrate some flexibility, including:

  • Allowing staff to work flexible hours, for example by allowing late starts or early finishes
  • Allowing staff to swap shifts with employees who do not wish to watch World Cup matches
  • Allowing unpaid leave if the employee’s absence can be accommodated by the business
  • Setting up workplace screenings, and/or
  • Allowing staff to listen to matches by radio or via online streaming.

Not all employees may be supporting the Australian Socceroos. Any flexibility offered should not focus only on Socceroos supporters, but supporters of any team to avoid any discrimination claims on the grounds of race, nationality or ethnic origin.

How should we deal with multiple requests for flexibility on the same day?

An employer is under no obligation to agree to requests to time off, simply because of the World Cup.

Leave requests should be considered in accordance with an employer’s procedures in the normal way, and staff can be reminded of this process. Alternatively, if an employer wishes to be more flexible for the duration of the World Cup, any variations to its leave policy should be clearly communicated to staff as being on a temporary basis only.

The needs of the business are likely to affect how many requests can be accommodated but employers should ensure that they deal with requests fairly and consistently, and that any decisions do not unlawfully discriminate. It is essential to manage employee expectations to minimise staff disappointment and continue to develop and maintain strong employee relations.

An employee was refused annual leave to watch a Socceroos game. On the day itself, the employee called in sick. Can we discipline the employee?

Employers should not automatically assume that sick leave during the World Cup is not genuine.

If an employer suspects that an employee has not been genuinely ill, it should address the matter promptly. Notice and evidence requirements regarding the taking of personal/carer's leave are set out in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) or may be contained in an employee's contract of employment or other workplace policy. Abuse of personal leave in these circumstances may entitle the employer to instigate disciplinary action against the employee.

Employers should be careful to avoid taking disciplinary action based on suspicions. Any action should be based on evidence, for example, if the employee told other employees they were absent to watch a particular match or if the employee posted a photo of themselves watching a game with friends on Facebook or Instagram.

We plan to screen key games during working hours at the work premises. Will we be liable for any banter which goes on during the game?

Screening key games may be welcomed by the workforce. However, employers will still be vicariously liable for any discriminatory banter or behaviour which may arise between employees while watching a game.

For example, if an employee feels that racial banter is making the environment offensive or hostile, the risk of a claim against the employer is increased. To reduce this risk, employers may wish to introduce the screening with a gentle verbal or written reminder of relevant workplace policies such as the equal opportunity, discrimination and harassment policy.

We plan to screen key games during working hours at work premises. Employees with no interest in these games will be expected to work as normal. Does this raise any issues?

While there is no obligation on employers to screen any of the key games during working hours, if an employer chooses to do so it must ensure that its decision does not discriminate against any part of its workforce.

A policy requiring employees who do not wish to watch any games to work as normal may indirectly discriminate against some groups, for example, it may put some nationalities at a particular disadvantage (such as where their team is not competing in the finals or their team's games are screened outside of normal working hours).

Further, employers should ensure that employees who do not want to watch the matches are not disadvantaged, such that they are left picking up work not being done by those employees who are watching games during working hours, or who leave early or arrive late because of a match.

We are allowing some flexibility to our workforce during the World Cup. One of our employees has requested that a similar policy is applied during the Australian Open. Do we have to agree to this?

Whilst there is no obligation on an employer to allow flexibility during the World Cup, if it chooses to do so it should consider whether a refusal to apply a similar policy during other sporting events which might be better enjoyed by, for example, women, or a different age group, will discriminate against any members of its workforce.

We anticipate that a number of our employees will keep track of World Cup matches via the internet. Should we allow this?

There is no obligation on an employer to allow its employees to use the internet during working hours to keep track of World Cup matches. However, an employer should determine its approach and apply that approach with uniformity and consistency, and in accordance with its computers/technology use policy.

Should we put in place a sporting events policy?

Employers should carefully review their existing policies and procedures to consider whether they adequately deal with staff issues arising out of the World Cup.

These existing policies are likely to include absence management, disciplinary and leave procedures and any policies relating to equal opportunity, internet usage and alcohol use. Where these do not deal with all the issues likely to arise during the World Cup, it may be appropriate to consider putting in place a separate sporting events policy for the occasions it will apply. This policy would allow the employer to specify its approach to sporting events and the expectations it has of its employees. This will assist both employers and employees to plan ahead, facilitate open communication, and enjoy the World Cup sporting experience!