Summer Sports Bonanza – should employers be excited or apprehensive?

Robbie Sinclair

With Euro 2016 fast approaching (kicking off tonight), employers will have already started to consider the impact that this summer’s sporting events may have on the workplace.

So what does this summer of sport include?

There are of course the usual summer sporting events. Racing enthusiasts and fashionistas alike will soon be gathering for Royal Ascot (Tuesday 14 June to Saturday 18 June). Everyone will be hoping that this is the year that Andy Murray once again holds the winner’s trophy at Wimbledon (Monday 27 June to Sunday 10 July), and the sublime talent of Rory Mcllroy (yes, I’m biased) will be showcased at The Open at Royal Troon (Thursday 14 July to Sunday 17 July).sports

In addition to these yearly highlights we also have the Euros to look forward to, with England’s group matches scheduled for 8pm on Saturday 11 June, 2pm on Thursday 16 June and 8pm on Monday 20 June. Most of the other home nations (sorry Scotland) will of course have their own group matches, as do the other participating European countries.

And last but by no means least, the whole world will be tuning in to watch the Olympics in Rio (Friday 5 August to Sunday 21 August), especially such highlights as the men’s 100m final (even if it is at 2am on Sunday 14 August!).

Even as a sports enthusiast I am already exhausted at the thought of the amount of sport I will be watching this summer.

So what?

What has this to do with the workplace? History tells us that staff morale and interest are high during such sporting events. Sport often has a unifying effect, with its accompanying anticipation, sweepstakes, banter, camaraderie and speculation, particularly in global businesses where there is more of a competition element. But we also know that staff can become distracted and more inclined to take a “sickie”.

As many of the upcoming events will be running during traditional working hours, employers may wish to take a number of pre-emptive but proportionate steps to ensure that business runs as usual while taking advantage of the potential boost to employee morale.

Employee morale

Employers may want to use these events as an opportunity to celebrate and boost staff morale. As many workplaces already have large-screen TVs in communal areas, screening key matches/events would not involve additional expense. Employers may even consider organising special evenings with refreshments when there are key matches/events taking place (for example, the England vs Slovakia match at 8pm on Monday 20 June). These events could also provide an opportunity to support your charity of the year by arranging sweepstakes.

Flexibility

Employers may want to consider allowing for increased flexibility during these events. One option may be to have a more flexible working day which allows employees to arrive at work a little later or finish earlier when there are key games/matches scheduled provided that the time is made up at another point. Any such change should, however, be approved before the event.sport

Alternatively, implementing a “reasonable watch” policy – where employees are able to listen to the radio or watch matches/events on TV provided that their workload permits and there are no business-critical issues – may be another option.

Whatever the approach taken, it is important to ensure that staff are treated fairly and consistently in respect of additional flexibility and benefits during sporting events.

Managing sickness

Statistics from previous tournaments such as the football World Cup show a significant increase in one-off employee sickness absences but I suspect this is more prevalent in workplaces without a “reasonable watch” policy. As many of the upcoming events run during working hours, levels of attendance should be monitored in accordance with the attendance policy. Employers should take advantage of any staff announcements regarding sporting events to highlight their policy on unauthorised absences.

Staff announcements

Regardless of the approach, some simple pre-emptive steps should help to ensure that business runs as usual. For example, employers may wish to make an announcement that those wishing to take holiday during these major sporting events should request the time off now, so that cover can be organised in the usual way. A notice can outline arrangements that have been put in place for events to be televised at work but which also sets out the boundaries and expectations. The announcement should inform employees of the approach that has been taken, detailing the matches/events that will be televised, if this is the case, and that a “reasonable watch” policy will be operated.

Banter

Our experience is that the dividing line between banter and harassment is not always clear when it involves sport: the elements of passion, boisterousness, competitiveness and national rivalries can tip the balance from banter into racial harassment.

The EAT case of Vaio v John Guest Engineering Ltd is a useful example of where the boundaries lie. During the 2008 Euros, colleagues placed screensavers displaying their national flags. There was a particular rivalry between the English and the Italian employees. The guys had great fun switching flags when one of the employees was away from his desk. He would leave his workspace proudly displaying an Italian flag, only to return to an English flag. This was done by both the Italian and English employees. The Employment Tribunal ruled that this behaviour was merely football banter. However, when the English work colleagues went further and annotated the words “Shitaly” on the Italian flag together with derogatory phrases on a screensaver and anti-Italian messages on the departmental notice board, crossed the line into harassment. While this decision was overturned by the EAT on the ground that the complaint was brought out of time, it does provide us with some insight into what is acceptable banter and what is not.

It is important that employees feel able to participate in banter: competition and rivalry are fine, but it can be helpful to give a gentle reminder that banter does not include derogatory or inappropriate comments.

Social media and website usage

Twitter and other social media outlets come alight with activity during high-profile sporting events. What employees say and do in their own time, and on their own technology, is up to them provided it does not bring their employer into disrepute. This is something that is often misunderstood by employees, who feel that what is done out of work is without limits. Social media and other policies should reflect the employer’s position on this, and steer the employees in the choppy waters of the work/life crossover.

Staff announcements on upcoming events should be used as an opportunity to circulate and highlight these policies to staff.

Alcohol

Different organisations will have different policies on alcohol at work, ranging from zero tolerance to responsible drinking during work-sponsored events. Whatever your policy, make sure your employees are familiar with it.

Don’t forget that it is Ramadan during the month of June, and observing Muslims will not be eating or drinking (not even water) from sunrise to sunset. A little sensitivity will go a long way.

Win/Win

Despite these risks, employers should resist the temptation to view these upcoming sporting events in a negative light. All these risks can be managed with a little prior preparation; taking a positive and celebratory approach is likely to pay dividends in terms of employee morale and goodwill.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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