As the Olympics approach, employers need to be aware of the impact the event will have on employees and business, in relation to the maintenance of operations during the Games and issues such as staff absence, both authorised and unauthorised.

The Games will commence on Friday 27 July 2012 and will close on 12 August 2012, shortly followed by the Paralympic Games from 29 August to 9 September 2012.

Whilst some events, such as the Opening Ceremony, will take place in the evenings, many, including those in which Team GB has medal hopes, will arise during normal working hours.

Not all employees will be able to take time off work to watch events live or will necessarily have thought to request leave in advance. However, the draw of watching a National team’s success or failure in certain events may prove too strong for many workers and encourage internet or television viewing or accessing of mobile phone updates or radio broadcasts during ‘work time’.

Over 75% of UK workers use PCs at work. Many more have mobile phones or devices with media access. Policy approach by employers, in terms of permitting personal use of such equipment in the workplace, varies from complete prohibition to extremely liberal.

However, allowing access may not of course be possible in all working environments, including those in the FAD sector – think manufacturing lines, health and safety, quiet environments, strict work patterns and quotas to meet. Even so, the temptation for staff to monitor progress of the Games or to watch certain events will be more intense than usual this Summer.

How should employers respond?

Employers should identify the main issues for their business, adopt a clear strategy and approach, communicate expectations and be fair with any disciplinary action.

Employers may want to establish how many employees have made requests for time off during this period and how many, if any, members of staff are volunteers who have been recruited for the games.

As the FAD sector is likely to see an increase in demand due to rising sales during this period – think food and drink retailers – it may be wise for employers to assess the number of requests in advance. It may also be an idea to assess current working patterns or arrangements to suit the needs and requests of both the business and the staff.

Whilst the needs of the business are of paramount importance it may be worth being flexible during this time in order to create a more motivated and productive workforce. It is recommended that employers grant holidays to those who have been lucky enough to obtain tickets to events. It may also be beneficial to the workforce, as a whole, to consider allowing employees to watch some of the main events. This may improve productivity and may reduce the number of unauthorised absences during this period.

Maintaining Staffing Levels and Productivity

A policy regarding internet use / access to mobile phones at work may already be in place and provide a suitable framework for what is deemed acceptable in the workplace. Blocking internet access is an option but not a complete solution if employees have access to personal mobile phones. Consider whether you will prohibit personal use of a work PC or access to personal devices during working hours? Or might it be possible to allow limited use around the needs of the business, such as at break or lunch times. Any policy decisions in this regard will need to be communicated clearly to all workers and applied consistently.

Ensure that any pre-existing policy is appropriate for the approach you intend to take to computer/ internet use during the Games.  If you have no policy, consider putting one in place.

Communicate expectations with employees. It is vital that employees are aware of any internet/ mobile phone policy. Unless the working environment is one which requires high security or health and safety measures, allowing responsible personal access to the internet can have advantages in terms of engendering trust and confidence and good working relations. However, it is essential that this is accompanied by clear communication of any restrictions and intentions to monitor activity if employers are to avoid breaching various legal protections of employee communications. Make sure that a your policy is clearly communicated to all staff in anticipation of the Games.

Increased demand and staffing levels

In the event you expect staff time off during or around the Games to be limited, employers may want to consider if there are any flexible working options they can employ which might allow staff to follow the Games but still meet staffing needs.  For example, early or later start or finish times to the working day, job-sharing or revised working patterns.  Employers will need to think about how they will deal with any requests from staff for such arrangements.

If an increase in staffing levels will be needed or replacement cover sought for staff taking time off, how will this be met? Are there parts of the business which are less affected and might offer additional resource? Or, if hours of work of existing staff are likely to be extended, do your contracts already allow for this and how it will offered or be paid? It is advised to check existing contracts to see what is already possible. In any event, consult with staff, many of whom may be prepared to agree the changes.

Diversity Awareness and Respect during the Games

Employers are advised to bear in mind that there may be events which are more significant to employees of different Nationalities. Employers should also make sure that those employees, who are not interested in the Games are not distracted by measures implemented. It may also be wise to offer those who are not interested in the events, similar perks to ensure that there is fairness across the workforce. Fairness of approach to all interests of staff will be vital to ensure that business continues to operate smoothly for the duration of the Games but also to ensure the future harmony and trust of the workforce.

Not everyone is interested in the Games, nor necessarily support the British team. As previous events have shown, even those who appear to be indifferent to the event at the outset often get caught up in the excitement. Others may simply want to ensure that their indifference does not result in less favourable treatment. With the number of Nationalities involved in the Games and the Paralympics on the horizon, there is scope for your employees to discriminate – maybe intentionally, perhaps obliviously.

The Games reflect our multi-cultural society and it would be a mistake for employers to assume that employees will only wish to watch Team GB or watch just the Olympics rather than the Paralympics.

Employers must therefore be mindful of discriminatory issues when accommodating requests to watch certain events. For example, giving undue preferential treatment to supporters of Great Britain, or only screening British events, or putting a ban on watching other Nationalities, could potentially result in a race discrimination claim on the grounds of Nationality. It is also advised that employers consider those who might prefer to watch the Paralympics instead of the Olympics.

Any policy or request for time off work or to watch games should be fairly and consistently applied and not favour a particular nationality or for the Olympics or Paralympics

Staff are likely to be discussing the events as they take place and this could include conversations that mention Nationality, race and/or disability. This could potentially upset other supporters who might consider this to be unwanted harassment and/or bullying. Make it clear that emails or postings on social media sites should not be discriminatory. Ensure that workers are aware of anti-bullying and harassment, and equal opportunities policies, to ensure that they do not breach anti-discrimination laws.

Employers who are able to prepare now, clarify the likely needs of their business, refine or develop clear policies and communicate openly and fairly with their staff will go a long way to avoiding many of the short term problems that can arise and, above all, better protect the interests of their business.