Real Employment Law Advice

Should You Let Employees Watch the Rugby World Cup?

As another major sporting event takes place, what are the things you should be considering as an employer?

The men’s Rugby World Cup kicked off on the 20th September 2019 in Japan and marks the start of a mammoth competition where for once, the home nations are among the favourites.

This is one of the biggest sporting competitions with thousands watching in the stadiums and millions watching worldwide.

However, because the tournament is in Japan, most matches will take place during the normal workday in England and Wales, usually in the mornings and early afternoons our time.

So, here’s the big questions: Should you let your employees watch the World Cup at work and what rights do they have to try and watch the game?

Let’s weigh some of the considerations.

Can an employee make their boss give them time off?

The short answer: No.

The long answer: There are some legal ways for staff to take time off if they wish, and which the employer may not always be able to refuse. Further, staff can still make the case to their employers that it would be better for everyone that they did.

Holiday

Staff can of course legally get the time off by requesting a holiday, although this may be unlikely unless they are a diehard fan.

Nevertheless, companies should expect holiday requests to increase and have plans in place accordingly. Staff may also request holiday at the last minute to cover their absences in the post-match hangover the next day, or if last minute plans to watch a match are made; and so companies should also expect to have to deal with holiday requests where the notice normally required for holiday may not be given.

Flexible working

Staff may also request more flexible working during the competition, such as asking for different shifts or starting earlier than normal to finish up in time for kick-off.

The employer must consider a genuine request for flexible working although I don’t think that rule was designed for rugby! so subject to the informal and/or statutory eligibility, staff could for example also make a case for working from home, and the employer would at least have to consider it.

However, employers can of course reasonably and fairly refuse a flexible working request on a number of broad grounds, although the reason itself is not a ground to refuse. Further, employees must remember that if agreed, a flexible working request is a change to contractual terms and conditions, and so is a permanent change. It would have to be clear that any such change is temporary and for the duration of the tournament only.

Morale

Of course, there’s the option of expressly prohibiting the watching of sports at work.

However, a blanket refusal to allow any time off may be counterproductive. The World Cup might be an opportunity to improve employee morale, engagement and productivity by allowing staff to watch or listen to matches.

All else being equal (and probably even if it’s not) happy employees are better than grumpy ones.

Most employers cannot tolerate letting employees watch every match of the World Cup when they are supposed to be working. Still, if some employees who identify closely with a country in the World Cup want to get together in an empty conference room during their lunch hour to watch their team’s match, is it worth saying no? At the same time, will other employees complain when those fans don’t return to their desks on time?

Productivity

This can also be affected by large sporting events. Can your employees still get the work done while watching rugby matches? Certainly, some will be able to have the World Cup matches on in the background while still performing their work tasks at a high level. Others, however, will probably become completely immersed in the matches and get no work done.

Even the risk of lost production doesn’t make this a no-brainer issue. Every workplace features daily downtime, whether scheduled or not. Employees get breaks for coffee and lunch, or a cigarette; or they are sitting around waiting on customers; or they stop in the halls to make small talk, catch up with colleagues, etc. For employees interested in the World Cup, some of this normal downtime will revolve around the tournament anyway.

Can staff pull a sickie?

In theory, yes, staff could claim to be absent for reason of sickness.

If they do, they don’t generally have to produce evidence of why they are ill or any details of the medical condition for the odd day’s absence. If an employee is off work for less than seven days, including weekends, the employer can’t even demand a sick/fitness to work note. Upon the return, it is up to the employee to self-certify although good employers will hold return to work meeting and will ask for the reason for the absence. It will be up to employer to determine whether the reason is truthful or not.

However, if the idea of coming over all poorly has occurred to an employee, it’s probably also occurred to the employer, and if they start checking vomiting bugs against the kick-off times, the next match for the employee could be versus a disciplinary panel.

Can employers limit time off to England games?

Not unless you fancy being sued for discrimination.

Your workforce demographic is important to consider as any approach may involve risks of discrimination.

If you allow time off, do not limit your approach to England supporters (or any nationality!). Apply it to all nationalities to avoid potential discrimination claims.

Further, some employees like rugby, others don’t. So, who is most likely to watch the World Cup? Without getting into statistics or unfairly stereotyping, let’s just assume it’s possible that in your workplace:

  • Men are more interested than women;
  • The younger employees are more interested than older ones; and
  • You have Welsh; Australian or French (or any other nationality) employees.

Thus, banning (or attempting to ban) employees from watching the World Cup may disproportionately affect some categories of employees. It could be these listed above, or other distinctions unique to your workforce or protected characteristic that an employee has.

Does that mean you cannot tell employees not to watch rugby at work? No. Or at least, probably not, there is no case law on it so it is always possible someone could try to make a claim!

But consider – do you let employees watch other non-work content at work? The Olympics? The Royal Wedding? What is the difference for rugby?

What should Employees consider if they are thinking of watching rugby at work?

Employees should check the employment contract and staff policies before watching any sports at work.

Tech savvy employers can include rules forbidding them from streaming on the basis it crashes the network, or simply ban or block certain sites altogether. This may already be covered by an electronic communication; monitoring and/or internet use policy.

Practically, if employees have computers on their desks, they may have easy access to the World Cup matches. Plus, they probably also have a smartphone that would allow them to watch what they want.

In office settings, some employees will try to watch whether it’s allowed or not, and it will be hard to monitor what people are doing on their personal devices whether there are policies in place or not.

On the other hand, if employees work in a factory, retail setting, or outside, their access to World Cup coverage will be more limited. There’s still the smartphone issue, but it’s harder to hold the phone while working with one’s hands. Further, these workplaces often involve greater safety concerns, probably necessitating more restrictions against distractions, and so monitoring and refusal is more likely to be justified with a legitimate aim of safety.

Drinking at work or working after drinking?

If your staff do watch a match, chances are they might consider having a drink before going back to work. Whether they should or not will really depend on the nature of their work and the amount drunk.

It will be illegal to do so for many workers such as drivers; doctors or those using machinery. But for the rest of us wine tasters, the line can be blurrier.

Employers and employees should check the contract of employment or handbook. They will often specifically outlaw booze or being under the influence of alcohol during working hours. This will often be at the discretion of the employer however, particularly if there is permission to watch a match at what could be called a work event. Employees must however take responsibility for their own conduct and drinking in this situation and act accordingly.

Many contracts and policies will now include specific reference to conduct outside of the workplace, or at a work events, or while in branded clothing. Conduct in such circumstances, such as becoming inebriated while watching a match, can be a disciplinary issue.

Further, the employer has a general duty under health and safety laws to protect employees from the effects of the bottle. In other words, if the employer is doubled up in laughter as an employee trips up on the computer cables and falls on the office floor with can in hand, they could be prosecuted.

Let’s get involved!

If an employer wants to embrace the competition:

  1. Consider a sweep stake or similar competition for all staff to get involved;
  2. Set aside a meeting room with a projector with coverage of the match running, and invite staff to use it during their authorised breaks;
  3. Decorate the workplace with bunting or flags of the competitors;
  4. Allow more flexibility for the later stages and the final itself;
  5. Take steps to encourage exercise after the competition ends – it doesn’t have to be rugby – cycle to work schemes; car share;
  6. Sponsor a local school club or attend a local match for team building.

Conclusion

Each employer will have to make its own decisions about whether to let employees watch the World Cup and other major world events at work. There is no perfect one-size-fits-all solution.

You should however be flexible to TRY (pun intended) to optimize productivity and morale during an event that most of the world becomes obsessed with every four years.

This article was written and researched by Albert Bargery, Solicitor at our Isle of Wight Office. Albert BargeryAlbert advises employers and employees on the Isle of Wight and throughout the UK. You can contact Albert by email: albert@realemploymentlawadvice.co.uk

Don’t forget getting advice from a Solicitor does not have to be complicated or costly!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.


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