'We're staying home' | How HR can tackle staff skipping work to watch the World Cup

How HR can tackle staff skipping work to watch the World Cup

The 2022 World Cup kicks off in less than a week, and expectations are high for teams and fans alike. Managers will be hard at work preparing their teams for success in the tournament.

At the same time, employers should be on the ball when it comes to managing staff and ensuring provisions are in place to keep productivity levels high, especially when a big match falls during a working day.

Two home nations will be competing in the tournament - England and Wales, who have even been drawn in the same group. They will both play their first matches on Monday 21 November and, crucially, England’s match is set to kick off at 1pm UK time.

Meanwhile, Friday 25 November is a date to watch for employers in Wales. This is only the second time that Wales has qualified for the tournament and anticipation is high, so employers may be concerned that their second match is scheduled for 10am UK time on Friday 25 November.

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Worryingly for HR, a recent survey conducted by Road To Victory, the firm setting up Europe’s largest World Cup fan zone in Manchester, shows 1 in 3 UK workers plan to call in sick during the tournament. More than two thirds of the survey respondents also said they plan to use their firm’s hybrid policy to avoid the office and work from home on days where key matches are on.

So it’s clear that some HR leaders will need to make some tactical decisions, and warn employees about the penalties they might face if they're caught downing tools in favour of the big game.

Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR, provided HR Grapevine with a look at some of the issues that could arise for employers during the tournament:

Can employees decorate the office with England / Wales flags for the World Cup?

Embracing the World Cup 2022 can be a fun initiative at work as a way of building a team and increasing engagement amongst employees. Some organisations create internal competitions around the event so everyone can get involved in the buzz it creates.

However, you should be wary of showing favouritism to one team over another due to the risk of claims of unfair treatment and race discrimination.

Only allowing England/Wales flags to be placed around the office, rather than allowing a representation of all nationalities of employees in the workplace, could result in complaints. If demonstrations of allegiance to one nation's team are to be permitted, it's advisable to allow that for all other teams too.

Do I need a sporting events policy?

Some employers may choose to create a specific sporting events policy to manage staff during big tournaments such as this, that can also be applied to all major events, such as the Euros, Wimbledon, and the Olympic games. These policies will typically outline an organisation’s stance on a variety of issues including flexible working, internet usage, and general workplace conduct for the duration of the tournament.

Having a specific sporting events policy in place will help inform staff of any amendments to accepted working practices during the tournament and provide employers with the framework required to discipline those who fail to comply.

With that being said, simply having a policy in place is just the first step and for any policy to be truly successful it must be communicated effectively.

Therefore, those who do choose to create a new policy should ensure a copy of this is provided to staff well in advance, allowing them sufficient opportunity to review its contents and consider the practical implications prior to the tournament kick- off.

Do I have to let my employees follow World Cup matches whilst at work?

It’s your choice whether you decide to let employees watch matches whilst at work, and this will largely depend on the type of work that you do. If absolute concentration is required for safety reasons, then it may not be possible.

Remember, if you allow employees to follow home team matches, then you will need to allow employees of all nationalities to follow their team’s matches too or risk a discrimination claim.

Allowing some flexibility when it comes to following matches, rather than banning it altogether, may help boost morale, maintain productivity levels, and manage the number of employees who request annual leave to watch the football.

What about employees watching the match on the internet at work?

This depends on your rules on using the internet at work for personal use - you may ban it completely or you may allow a certain amount. If you ban it completely, it will be easy to draw the line on breaches of this rule.

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If you allow some personal use, you will need to decide what you consider to be an appropriate amount so you can then classify what an excessive amount is. For example, you may decide it’s alright for employees to tune in for the 90 minutes of play but not all the pre- and post-match analysis. Where rules are breached, you should address them in a proportionate manner, depending on the circumstances. The first time an employee breaches the rule, it may be appropriate to simply have a quiet word with them and remind them of what is expected, together with letting them know that any further breaches will be dealt with accordingly i.e. under the disciplinary procedure.

What do I do if an employee turns up for work drunk after watching a World Cup match?

You should deal with this in the same way as you would other instances of an employee turning up for work drunk; rules should not be made more flexible just because of the World Cup. Check your policy on alcohol use. This is likely to state that an employee who turns up for work drunk will be sent home because they are unfit for work, especially if work involves driving or handling heavy machinery.

I can’t agree to all the annual leave requests I’ve got for the World Cup period, what should I do?

You can decline annual leave requests to ensure that your business needs are met, and this is no different during the World Cup. If you cannot grant all the requests you receive, you should decline those that you normally would during other busy periods; most employers grant requests on a first come first served basis.

It's advisable not to use any criterion that you wouldn't normally use to help you decide, for example, granting the request of an English employee over that of an employee of another nationality for time off on the day of an England match, because this could give rise to claims of discrimination.

I’ve had some requests from staff to leave work early to watch the World Cup matches, do I have to allow this?

No, you don’t have to. But this can be a useful way of reducing unplanned or unauthorised absences.

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What do I do if an employee phones in sick when there is a World Cup match on?

Although it can be easy to, don't jump to conclusions about the reason for the absence. When the employee comes back to work, hold a return-to-work interview with them and explore the reason for the absence. It could be completely genuine.

It can be difficult to provide that an employee's one-off sickness was not genuine. Record the absences and the next time one occurs, check back on their recent absence history.

If you can see a pattern is forming, for example, they always call in sick on the same day as a match or the day after, then you may be able to treat this as a conduct case. You will need to do a thorough investigation if you want to instigate a disciplinary process and would need to establish a reasonable belief that the employee had committed misconduct if a dismissal arising from these circumstances were to be found fair.

How can I be sure that my employees who work from home are working and not just watching football?

Where staff are working from home or hybrid working, it is advisable that if a dip in productivity is observed – in a male employee, for example – employers do not just assume that this is because they are watching the football.

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Making such an assumption, and/or dismissing an employee on that basis, without following a proper procedure could lead to claims of discrimination or unfair dismissal. Instead, line managers can manage the situation on a case-by-case basis, taking the employee’s specific situation into account – it may be that they are experiencing burnout or stress.

Employers should consider communicating to employees ahead of the tournament, to let them know what is expected of them during the tournament. This will also give you an opportunity to announce if there will be any relaxing of the rules or special arrangements made.

Employers must also take care to ensure that the guidelines inscribed in workplace policies are applied in a fair and consistent manner and cover employees who are in the workplace as well as those who work remotely, especially when it comes to issues where discrimination could arise.

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