An Employer’s Guide to the Olympics

As the start of the 2012 Olympic Games draws ever nearer, a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has found that more than half of all employers are planning to change their working practices so as to enable staff to work more flexibly (to avoid potential transport disruption) or to watch key events while at work so staff don’t have to take time off.

The study has revealed that around one-third of employers will try and accommodate requests from employees to work from home whilst 17% will extend flexible working opportunities.

The CIPD research found that many employers are also making preparations to allow staff to watch key events in the workplace. Almost a third (31%) of employers will make TVs available in the workplace and 11% will allow employees to view events online on their work computer.

So how should firms be planning for the Olympics and what are the problems that employers may face during the period?

Planning ahead

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) advises that employers plan ahead and not leave the management of staff absences to chance. It has identified a number of groups of staff who will want to take time off during the Olympic Games, including:

  • those who have tickets and will be attending the Games as spectators;
  • those who are volunteers at the Games;
  • those intending to watch the Games on TV or the Internet; and
  • those who have no interest but are frustrated by favouritism shown to those wanting to watch the Games.

ACAS suggests that employers should:

  • talk to staff to find out what their plans are over the period of the Games and have in place a policy for managing requests for absence – remember that the Games fall during the normal school holiday period so that some of those wanting to be away may simply be taking absence for the annual family holiday. Drawing up and communicating some simple guidelines may help.
  • put in place some flexible working plans wherever possible (even if only as a short term measure) so that those who want to watch specific events can manage their day so as to enable them to do so;
  • make facilities available within the office so that staff can take time to watch coverage “officially” rather than doing so “unofficially” over the Internet;
  • ensure that staff are made aware of any sanctions the firm may take in the event that there are instances of unauthorised absenteeism or performance issues;
  • understand the legal rights of volunteers and the responsibilities you have towards them and how volunteering can help your business.

Requests for time off

No business, especially a smaller one with few employees, can afford to have a substantial proportion of its workforce on leave at the same time. It is essential, therefore, that employers take the time to talk to employees and to manage their expectations as to what will be regarded as acceptable in terms of absence from work.

There is no legal requirement for an employer to agree to time off to attend or watch the Games – even if that employee has a ticket. However, if an employee has obtained a ticket and is refused time off, that employee – and probably those who work with them – is going to be but substantially demotivated by a refusal – and may even decide to take unauthorised leave.

It is essential, therefore, that employees plan ahead, and put in place provisions which will allow them to:

  1. agree the basis upon which employees can take time off. This may include:
    1. whether additional time off is to be granted – bearing in mind the need for a system that is fair to those who have no interest in the games,
    2. rotas to ensure that adequate cover is provided at all times,
    3. how competing claims for time off are to be dealt with,
  2. consider applications for unpaid leave – again bearing in mind the need for the business to be able to continue to function;
  3. deal with other similar requests for leave of absence – for example those who want time off to watch Wimbledon.

Alternatives to time off

To limit the number of requests for leave of absence, employers may also feel it appropriate to:

  • operate a flexible working system so that staff can take time to watch the events that specifically interest them and make up the time when it is more convenient for them;
  • allow staff to work from home or to work part-time;
  • allow staff to take shorter breaks – for example instead of having a minimum holiday period of half a day, allow staff to take holiday in hour-long units;
  • allow staff to watch or listen to coverage whilst working where this does not disrupt the work they do;
  • increase the flexibility of lunch-time breaks;
  • allow staff to take part in shift-swaps with colleagues who do not wish to watch a particular event – this may be particularly suitable route to take in organisations that require staff to be available around the clock or where a particular level of cover needs to be achieved during working hours – for example on telephone help lines; and
  • allow staff to take unpaid leave.

However, it is vital that whatever systems are operated that staff are made aware that these are concessions and that any abuse of the privileges granted will not be tolerated.

Also, if an employer is planning to allow staff to watch a television in the workplace they must make sure that they have an appropriate TV licence.


A number of people will be volunteering to assist at the Games. Handled correctly this could be used a PR boost for the firm or as the opportunity for members of the workforce to acquire new skills.

The commitment given by volunteers should not be underestimated and firms must be sure that they can afford for those members of staff to be absent. Note that, as with those who have tickets to watch the games, there is no legal duty upon employers to allow members of staff to act as volunteers. Thus, unless the firm chooses to handle it differently, volunteers will need to make the same applications for annual leave as others.

It is recommended, therefore, that firms have a clear policy on the approach that they will take to volunteering and how they will deal with competing requests for time off and that this policy is communicated to staff in advance.

Behaviour and discrimination

Employers need to be careful to ensure that the games are not used as an opportunity for discriminatory behaviour and to ensure that such behaviour does not inadvertently occur.

Thus staff need to have it made clear to them that they must respect the fact that not all of their colleagues may support Great Britain and that language and behaviour likely to cause offence or embarrassment or which could harass or intimidate, should be avoided at all times.

If the firm is allowing staff to watch sporting events in the workplace, it would also be worthwhile pointing out to them that they must not behave in a rowdy way.

Firms must also ensure that the way in which they themselves handle requests for time off to attend as a spectator or volunteer is not in itself discriminatory – either directly or indirectly.

Unauthorised absences

However accommodating an employer is, it is always possible that there will be those who want to watch an event for which they are unable to get agreement for an authorised absence or who simply decide not to turn up to work.

Employees may choose to phone in sick or simply not turn up for work at all.

If employers want to avoid or reduce unauthorised absences then they need to take steps at the outset to make it clear what they expect from their employees and what the sanction will be if that expectation is not met.

This might include:

  • guidance on what will happen if they turn up late or not at all – including sanctions that will be imposed;
  • what is likely to happen if they are under the influence of, or recovering from, an excess of alcohol;
  • steps that will be taken to investigated unauthorised absences;
  • the need for medical evidence if they are off sick or the need for them to speak to a suitably senior member of staff if they ill.

In particular, firms are advised to ensure that they have a reliable way of recording absences and holidays so that they can identify any patterns of absence that might emerge.


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