Another summer, another season packed full of sport.  Last year it was the Ashes that gripped the nation.  This year, the football world cup looks set to dominate proceedings.

In just a few weeks time, England kick off their world cup campaign in Germany (with or without the boy wonder Wayne Rooney).  No doubt, this will lead to fever pitch in work places across the country as staff become increasingly interested in the tournament.  With matches set to start during the normal working day, how can employers ensure that staff don’t take unauthorised time off?

According to the CBI employers believe only a small proportion of absences from work – around 14 per cent – are not due to genuine sickness. However, this still adds up to some 23 million days lost unnecessarily each year at a cost of £1.7billion to the economy.  Approximately half of employers believe there may be a link between one-off special events and people being absent.

Nonetheless, many employer and employee representative bodies have chosen to adopt a pragmatic approach to the issue – having gained first hand experience last year of how the Ashes series caused disruption in the work place.   Last year, nPower (the sponsors of the Ashes test cricket series) set up television screens around its offices to allow workers to watch ball-by-ball action.  nPower said that they prefer workers to turn up to work rather than have them “taking sickies”.  Can we expect a similar approach to England football matches with “inconvenient” kick-off times?

Nobody likes to be a kill-joy and we all recognise that we need to be sensible but at the same time employers may be faced with the unauthorised absence of members of staff who watched the football (or have a hangover from celebrating the night before). Others may be faced with evidence (in the form of, say, television footage) of employees, some of whom may have taken annual leave to attend the tournament, engaging in disorderly or even violent behaviour before, during or after the event.

Employers should be aware of taking peremptory action for such reasons  – snap decisions could lead to costly claims before the employment tribunal.  The ACAS code on disciplinary procedure and practice suggests that criminal offences committed outside the employment relationship should not be treated as automatic reasons for dismissal, regardless of whether the offence has any relevance to the duties of an individual as an employee.  In the case of Post Office v. Liddiard, Mr Liddiard was dismissed for bringing the Post Office into disrepute after he was convicted by a French court of hooliganism at a world cup match in Marseille.  The violence in France received widespread press coverage.  The employment tribunal ruled that Mr Liddiard’s dismissal was unfair but the Court of Appeal eventually found favour with the Post Office’s argument that Mr Liddiard’s conviction in France had (through bad publicity) brought the Post Office into disrepute, and re-submitted the case to the employment tribunal.  Many employers may have difficulty proving any sort of detrimental effect on their business.  A more prominent employee involved in any sort of disorderly or violent behaviour which receives widespread publicity could be more at risk of being found to have been fairly dismissed.

Violence and disorderly conduct may be an extreme, but absenteeism of employees is far more common.  Employers should not jump to conclusions simply because an employee has not turned up for work on a day when England are playing – there may be a reasonable explanation.  Employers should ensure that any disciplinary procedures and proceedings are followed, are dealt with fairly and that warnings are given.  Disciplinary offences committed during the world cup or any other sporting event should, strictly speaking, be treated the same as similar disciplinary offences committed at any other time.

Employers could decide to deal with such issues in a clear way and establish policies dealing with disciplinary offences during high profile sporting events.  Such policies should be communicated to all staff and staff should understand what will and won’t be tolerated.  Policies could also include statements on how the employer deals with the use of internet, radios and telephones during working hours. 

In reality, many employers take a more realistic view of matters and they should consider how such policies may affect workplace morale.  Practical tips include allowing a television to be left on in the workplace or start and finish work early to give them time to get home (or to the pub) in time for the big kick-off.  Internet usage could be allowed say by authorising a live scoreboard to tick away in the corner of the screen. Be conscious, though, of differing allegiances in the workplace. Don’t assume it’s the England matches everyone wants to watch – you could be making discriminatory decisions if you don’t allow others to follow their national teams.

Such policies and taking a slightly more informal approach (especially where employees do not take advantage of such good will) could benefit all parties, earn you some easy employee relations points and end up saving management time – which would otherwise be wasted during a disciplinary process and the costs of defending possible tribunal claims.  Goodwill and morale as well as football will be the likely victors.

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