The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (the Games) will be hosted in London this summer and it is not only the athletes who need to ensure they are well prepared. If they have not already done so, employers should consider implementing adequate policies and procedures, and, if necessary, temporarily amending working practices, to ensure they maintain a high level of employee productivity while preserving a healthy relationship with staff during the Olympics. Set out below is a number of the potential challenges that employers in the UK are likely to face this summer, and the practical steps that can be taken to alleviate their impact.
REQUESTS FOR LEAVE
Employers should expect a greater than usual number of requests for annual leave during this period. Those hoping to take vacation will include not only the usual holiday-makers wishing to take time off during the peak vacation season, but will extend to employees who have been able to get hold of tickets for an Olympic or Paralympic event, those who have volunteered to assist with the organization and coordination of the events as 'Games Makers,' and finally those who simply want to take vacation to watch the events from the comfort of their own homes. The challenge is to deal with these requests fairly and reasonably in light of conflicting business requirements and employee expectations.
Employers must begin by considering the needs of their businesses and whether they will be able to grant the requests of all employees wishing to take time off for the Games. Consideration should be given to the adequacy of an existing annual leave policy, particularly whether a specific policy should be implemented to deal with vacation requests during this period. Generally, employers in the UK have the right to decline employees' vacation requests (as long as employees are permitted to take their annual vacation entitlement at some other time in the applicable year). However, employers should take care to ensure that their approach to granting or denying vacation requests is fair and consistent, in order to avoid potential conflict or claims of unfair discrimination.
Balloting system. One solution may be to adopt a balloting or other objective system to ensure fair and impartial selection where an employer is unable to grant all received requests. This would be preferable to a 'first come, first served' system which, while it may at first glance seem like a reasonable method of selection, may risk disadvantaging part-time employees or those currently on leave.
Flexible working. Employers could also consider implementing a more flexible approach to working hours whereby employees could arrive earlier in the morning, in order to leave earlier in the evening, or vice versa. Further, employees could reduce the work week to four days, while still working the equivalent number of hours of a full working week. The viability of this approach will depend on a number of considerations, including the nature of the employees' work and the readiness of other employees to accommodate these changes by working longer hours, if necessary.
Working from home. Permitting employees to work from home may also be feasible for certain organizations and will alleviate any commuting problems that may be encountered. However, there are a number of important considerations that employers should bear in mind before implementing a blanket policy that allows all employees to work from home. Firstly, organizations will need to have appropriate information technology (IT) infrastructure in place, such as ensuring employees (a) have the necessary equipment, such as a computer (although equipment does not have to be provided at the employer's expense, employers are responsible for any equipment they provide) and (b) can remotely access the relevant networks and systems. In addition, it will necessarily be more difficult to supervise employees or monitor their performance or hours of work if they are not required to attend the workplace. Confidentiality may also be a concern if employees will be permitted to take confidential documents home. Finally, because employers are still responsible for employees' health and safety when they are working from home, it may be advisable to carry out workplace risk assessments in order to identify any hazards, such as loose wires or badly lit computer screens, and minimize any risks these pose. Ensuring employees are adequately set up to work from home may be a costly and time-consuming exercise and, if such systems are not already in place or are unlikely to be used beyond this summer, this may not be a practical solution.
The most important consideration for handling requests for leave during the Games will be to ensure that the policy is clearly communicated to employees in good time, and applied consistently throughout an employer's organization .
SHORT TERM ABSENTEEISM
It is likely that, during the Olympics and Paralympics, employers will notice a spike in short-term absenteeism: employees might call in sick in order to avoid using any of their annual leave entitlement, disappear during working hours (perhaps for an extended lunch break) or arrive late or leave early without authorization. This may be a deliberate decision on the part of ticket-holders who have been denied annual vacation for example, or could simply be because employees have been caught in the heavy traffic generated by the Games. Therefore, employers will need to consider how to fairly, but effectively, stem a trend that could prove detrimental to both overall productivity and staff morale.
The issue of employees suspected of 'pulling a sickie' conveniently timed to coincide with a particular Olympic or Paralympic event may be difficult for employers to navigate. If an employer suspects that an employee may not genuinely be sick, formal disciplinary proceedings may be appropriate. While it can be difficult to disprove an employee's claim that he or she was sick, an incriminating update on a public forum, such as a social networking website, may be very useful in these circumstances. However, absent any proof that the employee was not actually sick, the employer may have little remedy, as implementing a disciplinary hearing arguably means the employee is being accused of lying, which could possibly lead to a claim for constructive unfair dismissal as a result of a breakdown in mutual trust and confidence.
As an alternative, preventative measures should be taken as soon as possible to dissuade employees from trying this ruse during the Games. Where an organization 's sickness absence policy is not contractual, one solution may be to amend the current policy to require employees to submit medical certificates for any absence taken as sick leave during the course of the Olympics and Paralympics, even if such absence is only for one day. However, if a sickness absence policy forms part of an employee's terms and conditions of employment, any proposed amendments will require the employee's consent before they can be implemented.
Employers should ensure that employees are aware of the terms of the sickness absence policy and should be warned that breaches of the policy may lead to disciplinary action, regardless of whether any amendments to an existing sickness absence policy are proposed.
In circumstances where employees take unauthorized absences without authorization (i.e., by leaving work prematurely to catch an early evening event), employers can take disciplinary action and, following an investigation, may perhaps issue employees with a warning that repeat offences may lead to more serious sanctions. Offenders may be required to make up time for such unauthorized absences, or may be required to take the time spent off work as annual leave. However, employers should be mindful of the need to deal fairly with employees who have a reasonable justification for lateness, such as difficulties with commuting in light of increased traffic (which is expected to have a severe impact on journey times in London this summer). As mentioned above, employers should consider whether more flexibility in relation to working hours or permitting employees to work from home are viable solutions in light of their business needs.
FOLLOWING THE GAMES IN THE WORKPLACE
Permitting employees to watch the Games in the workplace, or to follow live updates via Internet feeds, might be taken as a license to work less productively, or to take too frequent breaks. Meanwhile, IT system speeds might be negatively impacted if events are to be streamed through the organization 's network.
Employers should consider whether to permit employees to follow the Games using office IT facilities. Generally, employers will have the right to either restrict or monitor the use of the Internet, and it is important that employees are made aware of this. If permitting employees to watch the Games using their office computers is not practical, or for those employees who do not have access to computers at work, employers may consider screening particular events, perhaps in a communal area such as the workplace canteen. This may have the combined benefit of reducing IT traffic while also regulating staff access to the Games and boosting workforce morale.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN!
In adopting concessionary solutions in order to deal with any of these problems, employers should be aware of other potential pitfalls. Employees with no interest in the Games, and whose journey times are not affected by them might be estranged by any alterations to working hours or arrangements, while working from home raises important issues of IT access, health and safety concerns and the need to ensure data confidentiality. Employers should give careful consideration to implementing a practical solution for their business which treats employees fairly and reasonably, whilst minimizing disruption to the day-to-day running of the business.
A recent poll in the UK found that 88 percent of employees questioned are largely unaware of the policies their employer has in place for dealing with potential worker absences and business disruptions during the Games. Clear communication is therefore essential if employers are to avoid confusion and minimize any reduction in productivity. Through careful consideration of the specific needs of their own organization, by instituting the appropriate procedures and policies as soon as possible, and by ensuring that employees are aware of these procedures and policies, employers should be in a position to manage employee expectations and minimize disruption to deliver a winning performance for their businesses during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.