I am the HR Manager of a small IT firm. The majority of our staff is male and, unsurprisingly, they have all gone football crazy over the past few weeks!  Some of them have asked to leave work early in order to watch England matches. Is the firm obliged to comply with these requests? We don’t want our staff to pull sickies (or to have to pay our staff) just to watch matches or recover from the morning after a big match. Also, I am concerned that if we allow longer lunch breaks and/or early finishes to the English male football viewers, the female staff at the firm might find this unfair as many of them have no interest in football whatsoever. There are also a number of French and Portuguese employees at the firm who don’t support England and who would prefer to be allowed to watch their respective countries matches. I’m going crazy – how do I keep everyone happy and on-side?

From Frantic about Footie


Dear Frantic

World Cup fever is sweeping the country at the moment and whilst the English players face challenges on the pitch, many employers like yourself are having to face challenges at the workplace. The key to overcoming the challenges thrown by the World Cup is to address them head on rather than waiting for someone to shout offside! ACAS and AMICUS have both given their views on this hot debate. Auntie now enters the scrum (oops! wrong game)

Football’s coming…to work

If some of your employees are requesting temporary changes to their working patterns in order to watch the matches, it is best to recognise this and learn to manage the requests effectively.  Even though employers have no legal obligation to consider these type of requests, practically it is recommended that you do. Failure to consider or co-operate might cost employers dearly because staff may be tempted to fake sickness, which will invariably be more harmful to a business than pre-planned time off or reduced working hours. In order to ensure minimal disruption and detriment to the business, why not put in place one or more of the following:

  • Access to a “TV rest area” so that your staff can watch matches during their breaks or lunch. This arrangement would also avoid individuals from attending work under the influence of alcohol as a result of watching matches at the pub.
  • A flexi-time approach so that any hours lost watching matches are made up afterwards. Recent research has shown that businesses such as yours find their workforce is more collaborative and enthusiastic when allowed to follow matches with their colleagues. Also, boosting morale at work potentially increases productivity.
  • Plan ahead for absences to ensure sufficient numbers of staff are on the business premises to fill any gaps in the workforce. This will avoid any adverse impact caused by people being out of the office.

Sick leave – foul play?

Sometimes you may be faced with higher than normal levels of sickness absence on the day of England matches or indeed the morning after a big England match.  It is all too easy to doubt the genuineness of such absences and conclude that it is football fever and not hay fever which is the real culprit! However, absences during the World Cup must be dealt with in the same way as at any other time of the year.

Bear in mind that you can treat non-genuine sickness absence as a disciplinary matter and caution the individual in the appropriate way. If it is established that the sickness absence was in fact not genuine, you do not have to pay sick pay and disciplinary action could be taken.

Men versus Women

You say that your female staff have no interest in watching the matches because they are not interested in football. Are you sure of this? Do not assume which of your employees will and will not be interested in the matches – whether on gender, racial or other grounds. If you decide to adopt flexible working arrangements, it is your duty as an employer to ensure that this is made available to your entire workforce, without making assumptions about their interest in football. Failure to allow female staff access to these arrangements will constitute less favourable treatment and lead to potential sex discrimination claims under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Equally, failure to allow, for example, gay staff access to these arrangements will constitute less favourable treatment and could lead to potential claims under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003.

National anthems & nationality discrimination

If you are going to allow staff the flexibility to watch matches, then they should be able to follow their own team: and that won’t necessarily be England. Denying your French or Spanish staff "une tranche de l’action" (not that the Spaniards will be seeing much now) would be potentially nationality discrimination under the Race Relations act 1976.

The final whistle – game over?

However you go about dealing with the World Cup issues identified above, take caution to not set any unwanted precedents. The World Cup may only occur every 4 years, but adjustments and concessions made for one sporting event will undoubtedly lead to future expectations regarding other sporting events. For example, should flexitime implemented during the World Cup be resurrected for the Olympics? What about Wimbledon? Consider the potential for an indirect sex discrimination claim brought by a woman who argues that she has a passion for tennis and her employer is blind to this yet he caters for the general male craze for football. In this light, even when the final whistle is blown at the World Cup, it is still not quite game over in the match between employer and employees!

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