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Olympics preparation: time is running out

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Employers in the City and Canary Wharf are likely to be heavily affected by disruption because of their proximity to the Games and because of the multinational nature of the workforce. 

City employers have quite legally sophisticated workforces, so it is of paramount importance that they get this right. 

Employers should consider the following:

  • If employers are changing staff working hours, they will need to be mindful of potential discriminatory issues which might arise. For example, if changes in working hours make it difficult for staff to deal with childcare arrangements, that could trigger sex discrimination claims. Employers can avoid this problem simply by offering an opt-out for such staff.
  • Employers who give some staff time off to watch specific events but prevent other staff watching different events can trigger discrimination claims, if it seems that the basis of the reason was their nationality. For example, allowing one group of foreign nationals in the office to watch an event where their compatriot is predicted to do well but not another could cause disgruntlement and even trigger a discrimination claim. If that happened the employer would have to demonstrate a non-race related reason for their decision.

It is even conceivable that employers could trigger discrimination claims from foreign nationals by allowing staff to watch events where British athletes might succeed but not providing corresponding access to non-British workers. It is the kind of nuisance claim that, even if unlikely to succeed, will still create a huge headache for the employer.

  • How will requests for time off during the games from large numbers of staff be handled? The employer’s policy will need to be fair.  Ways to do this include restricting staff to a set number of days off for the duration of the Games, or implementing a “first-come, first-served” procedure. Employees should be encouraged to put in holiday requests early. 
  • Given potential travel issues (it’s predicted that there will be an extra three million trips a day on the London Underground alone during the Games), what flexibility will be allowed on rules over lateness? By letting employees know that their punctuality will be closely monitored during the games, employers can reduce the likelihood of staff using the Games as excuse for tardiness.
  • How will employees who throw a “sickie” during the Games be treated? Telling employees that any absences for sick leave will be more heavily scrutinised, with a doctor’s note usually required, is likely to reduce the number of absences. Misconduct should, however, be treated the way the company normally deals with it. 
  • Employers will need to consider how they monitor employees’ use of computers to watch the Games. It is very important to have a clear policy in place for this, which explicitly states whether or not staff can watch the Games while working.  Employers can adopt a “carrot” approach by providing a screen in a communal area for staff to watch some of the events as well as the “stick” of potential disciplinary action.
  • Do employers have the flexibility under their existing arrangements to ask employees to change their hours, or will they need to get some buy-in by offering an incentive or having a consultation with staff?
  • Some business areas will be more affected than others. Employers will need to consider how this will impact staffing requirements. Employers will need to consider whether they are going to ask staff to change hours of work, or whether they might need to take on extra staff etc.

Employers will have to tread a narrow tightrope. The Olympic Games risk causing a serious loss of productivity but if employers take steps to mitigate that without prior buy-in from employees, they could end up with a disgruntled workforce, or even face legal claims.

By putting in place workplace policies which are communicated early and clearly to employees, disruption can be kept to an absolute minimum. In fact, with carefully worded policies, there is no reason why employers can’t maintain productivity levels during the Games while also scoring brownie points with staff.

Paul Quain is a partner at GQ Employment Law.

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