How can employers best manage absence – through leave or otherwise – during major sporting events, in particular the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games?

Major sporting events such as the World Cup always pose issues for employers, as employees seek to follow the best of the action, but when they are held in this country the complexities are multiplied.

With 6,500 athletes from 71 countries competing in 17 sports over 11 days, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games is the biggest sporting event ever to take place in Scotland.

Despite the false start from the ticketing website and phone line, over 1,000,000 tickets have been sold, and with 15,000 volunteers assisting at the Games, there will be a surge in people from within Glasgow and beyond, looking for time off their work.

The Games will begin with an opening ceremony at Celtic Park on 23 July and end with a closing ceremony at Hampden Park on 3 August, and are therefore taking place during the school summer holiday period, already one of the most popular times for employees to make annual leave requests. As a result of the Games, annual leave requests during this busy time look set to be higher than ever.

How then can employers best manage employee absence during the Games?

The right to take annual leave

Those lucky enough to have obtained tickets for the Games or to have been accepted as volunteers, will have received notification of that fact well in advance, and accordingly should have submitted their annual leave requests in good time. For those employees who have failed to give their employer sufficient notice, or those who manage to get last minute tickets, it is useful for employers to bear in mind that they are not necessarily compelled to grant an annual leave request at very short notice, and that there are options available to them.

It is common practice for employers to provide that employees have to give a certain amount of notice of their intention to take annual leave within their contracts of employment. If no such provision is made, the Working Time Regulations 1998 will apply. These provide that an employee must give their employer at least twice as many days’ notice as the period of annual leave that they wish to take. Therefore if an employee wants to take one day’s leave they need only give two days’ notice. This may be insufficient for many employers, particularly at a time when others are also requesting leave. Employers can serve a counter notice to decline an employee’s holiday request in certain circumstances.

It is also good practice to make enquiries up front to determine whether employees have secured tickets or are intending to volunteer. That way, if employees have not already submitted their time off requests, they can be encouraged to do so in good time, so that it is known who will be looking for time off, and when, up front.

Annual leave or unpaid leave?

The criteria for volunteers provide that they must be available for eight days during the games, and that they must attend training in advance of the Games as well.

Volunteers may ask their employers if they can take time off during the Games as unpaid leave, rather than using up their annual leave entitlement, highlighting the fact that they are performing public services on a voluntary basis. Before employers agree to such a request, they should bear in mind that employees will still be entitled to take their full annual leave entitlement for their current annual leave year, on top of any unpaid leave. Accordingly, employers should carefully consider business needs when determining such requests, particularly when considering a volume of similar applications.

Corporate social responsibility policy

If an employer has a corporate social responsibility policy, they should consider its terms prior to rejecting any request for annual leave or unpaid leave. If the policy encourages employees to volunteer, but subsequent requests for time off are declined, this may, depending on the circumstances, serve to undermine the policy.

Holiday request procedure

Employers should have a clear holiday request policy, and make sure they apply this fairly and consistently to all employees.

Employers could consider having a practice of granting requests on a first come first served basis. This would help to minimise the likelihood of employees feeling that they have been singled out, or treated differently from others, if their annual leave request is refused. This only works, of course, if all employees know the policy in advance, and if the employer applies the policy consistently.

Managing absences

Disgruntled employees who have holiday requests declined may decide to take the time off anyway… perhaps under the guise of being struck down with “unexpected” ill health.

If an employee is absent for less than eight consecutive days, they do not require to submit a statement of fitness for work from their GP, and instead they can self-certify. This is easily done, and unauthorised absences for a short period can therefore be difficult for employers to deal with. There are however steps that employers can take to address matters, via disciplinary proceedings if necessary, where there is a basis to suggest that the reason for absence may differ from the one claimed by the employee.

It is of course good practice to keep a note of the dates for which employees have requested annual leave, or even better, to require employees to submit annual leave requests in writing. This would be useful evidence to have in the event an employee takes time off sick after their annual leave request has been refused.

In addition, it is not unusual for employees in the modern climate to be caught out when taking unauthorised leave by (ill-advisedly) posting their whereabouts on social media sites, particularly during major sporting events. This may be a distinct possibility, particularly where an employee has managed to secure Games tickets at short notice, and/or wishes to share their experience on social media.

It is also useful to have a clear sickness reporting procedure. Employees should ideally be required to call their manager personally to inform them of their absence and the reasons for it. Texting, or allowing employees to have someone else call on their behalf, sometimes makes it too easy for employees to call in “sick”. It is also good practice for employees to be invited to a return to work meeting following any period of sickness absence, so that the reason for their absence can be discussed in more detail. If employees know that they are going to be questioned in relation to the reason for their absence, this may help act as a deterrent to them calling in ”sick” in the first place, particularly during major sporting events!

Encouraging attendance

To try to encourage attendance at work during the Games, and to deter employees from taking unauthorised absences, employers could, for the most popular sporting events, perhaps consider allowing employees to watch those events during working hours, and make up the time taken to do so.

Employers could also consider allowing employees to change their hours of work on a particular day so that they are able to watch sporting events in their own homes, by say starting earlier so that they can then leave work earlier to watch a particular event. This would hopefully encourage employees to attend work, knowing that they will get the time off they need.

Employers could also consider relaxing their internet use policies during the Games so that employees are permitted reasonable internet access to keep up to date with developments.

Travel disruption

Due to an increase in traffic in and around Glasgow, especially on the days on which major events are taking place, it may be that there is an increase in recorded lateness. If employees’ travel is likely to be disrupted, employers may wish to give them advance notice of that to remind them that they need to allow plenty of time for their journey to arrive at work on time.

In special circumstances, depending on an employer’s location, they may even wish to allow employees to work from home if the travel disruption is likely to be significant.

Employers may also wish to consider limiting non-essential travel to areas where travel will be disrupted by the Games and to well known congestion “hot spots”.

It is hoped that, by following the guidelines above, employers can minimise the disruption to their businesses during the Games. Once the Games are over, they can then hopefully breathe a sigh of relief that the sporting induced flurry of annual leave requests from their staff is over... at least, that is, until 23 September 2014, when the Ryder Cup returns to Scotland!

The Author
Gillian Cumming is a senior solicitor with Just Employment Law Ltd, Glasgow
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