In just a few days time, England kick off their world cup campaign in South Africa. No doubt, this will lead to fever pitch in work places across the country as staff become increasingly interested in the tournament. The World Cup can bring great advantages to business and staff morale, but it can create a head-ache for HR too.

Unauthorised absence

One of the biggest problems caused by sporting events is unauthorised staff absence.

Nobody likes to be a kill-joy, but at the same time employers may be faced with the unauthorised absence of members of staff who want to watch the football or have a hangover from celebrating the night before.

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. Ensure that any absence / disciplinary procedures are followed, employees dealt with fairly and that suitable warnings are given. Disciplinary offences committed during the World Cup should be treated the same as similar disciplinary offences committed at any other time.

The problems with patriotism

It isn’t uncommon for staff to get carried away when “Engerland” are playing, and office banter can get out of hand.

In the recent case of May & Baker Ltd v Okerago, Ms Okerago was asked by a colleague whether she would be supporting England or her own country at the World Cup. When Ms Okerago responded that she would support her own country, her colleague told her to go back to her “own [expletive] country”. Ms Okerageo raised a grievance, which was not properly investigated, and she subsequently claimed race discrimination. The tribunal agreed that Ms Okerago’s colleague’s comments amounted to direct race discrimination.

Employers need to be alive to unlawful comments such as this, and ensure that they are properly investigated and dealt with under a disciplinary and/or equal opportunities procedure.

Trouble outside of work

If you have an employee who is involved in hooliganism during the World Cup, what can you do?

Offences committed outside of work should not be treated as automatic reasons for dismissal. Instead, the employer must carry out necessary investigations into the matter and then follow a disciplinary procedure which accords with the requirements of the Acas Code of Practice. If the decision is to dismiss the employee, is this decision within the range of reasonable responses?

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 1998 World Cup match in Marseille. The violence in France received widespread press coverage. Both the tribunal and EAT ruled that Mr Liddiard’s dismissal was unfair but in 2001 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.

It would seem from this and other cases that it will only be appropriate to dismiss an employee for hooliganism if the employer can demonstrate that the employee’s actions have had a negative effect on the its business. This might be easier to show if the employer has a well-drafted disciplinary policy and the conviction impacts on the employee’s ability to perform his role, but many employers will have difficulty proving any sort of detrimental effect on their business.

Winning solutions

  • Establish policies dealing with working practices during high profile sporting events – issues such as this arise not only during the World Cup, but also during Wimbledon and the Ashes for example. 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 TV during working hours.
  • With some World Cup matches having inconvenient kick-off times of 12.30 and 15.00, many employers will choose to take a pragmatic approach to the tournament. For example, employers could be more flexible about start and finish times, or set up television screens around its offices to allow workers to watch the action rather than have employees “taking sickies”.
  • Be conscious 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.
  • Taking a slightly more informal approach 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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