The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games are just around the corner! The Olympic Games take place from 27 July to 12 August 2012 and the Paralympic Games from 29 August to 9 September 2012.

This briefing contains guidance on the issues employers are likely to face as a result of employees who have volunteered at the Games, and those wishing to attend events as spectators or follow the Games at work. Due to the unique circumstances of the event it is important for employers to have clear policies in place well before the Games, and for the policies to be communicated effectively to all staff.

Volunteering at the Games

The selection process for volunteers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games is well under way, with offers currently being made to successful applicants. Volunteers are expected to attend a minimum of three training sessions prior to the Games and ten volunteer event days during the Games as part of their commitment to the programme. Therefore employers need to start thinking about how to manage requests for time off for such training and event days.

Employers are not legally obliged to give employees time off for volunteering. However, many employers recognise the benefits to their business of allowing employees to engage in volunteer programmes during working hours, in terms of personal development, morale boosting and contribution to the community. Some employers therefore give employees an agreed quota of paid leave per year in order to volunteer.

Ultimately, it is up to the employer to decide whether volunteers will be required to take annual leave in order to carry out their role, or whether they will be offered the opportunity of taking special paid or unpaid leave. Where employers are unable to accommodate requests for time off, employees should be made aware of this as soon as possible. In this situation, unless the employment contract provides otherwise, the employer is entitled to turn down the employee’s request provided the employee is given as many days’ notice as the length of the requested leave.

Alternatively, employers may wish to offer employees the opportunity to work flexible hours or to make up lost time at a later date. Any special arrangements to enable employees to volunteer for the Games must be established and implemented in a fair, consistent and non-discriminatory manner, so as to avoid discrimination, victimisation or constructive unfair dismissal claims.

Benefits of a special annual leave policy

Many employers will face a larger than normal number of requests for annual leave from employees wishing to attend or watch events or from employees wishing to get away from the crowds and travel disruption. Despite the staffing pressures that employees’ absences may put on businesses, holiday requests must be handled consistently, fairly and within the appropriate time frame.

Depending on the particular staffing needs of their business, employers may wish to issue a special holiday policy for the Olympic period. This is particularly important for businesses which have limited capacity for flexibility in this respect. Competing requests for leave during the Games could be dealt with on a “first come, first served” basis, by way of a lottery or on any other non-discriminatory basis. The policy should be clear, fair and transparent and staff should be informed of the policy at the earliest opportunity.

Where normal holiday procedures are to apply, employers should review their existing policy and ensure that it covers the procedures for approving annual leave and for dealing with multiple requests for the same period. Staff should be reminded of the procedures, and how they can access the policy, in the months leading up to the Games. In addition, where there is likely to be difficulty approving multiple requests, it may be sensible to inform employees of this, in order to give them sufficient time to consider their options and to manage expectations.

Employers may wish to set a date by which all requests for holiday over the Olympic period should be submitted. This may help to ensure that requests are dealt with consistently, minimising the risk of claims of unfair or discriminatory treatment from employees who are not granted leave. Setting up a designated email account for dealing with these requests and other related issues may help to coordinate this process.

To reduce the likelihood of those employees who are refused requests for holiday failing to turn up for work, employers may choose to remind staff of their absence notification procedures and that any unauthorised absence will be regarded as misconduct. In the event of an unauthorised absenteeism during the Games, the usual disciplinary procedures should be followed. Employers should be careful not to jump to conclusions if an employee arrives late to work or calls in sick. In all cases a proper investigation should be conducted.

Flexible working

Although there is no general statutory right to request flexible working, many employers may consider accepting requests for flexitime or other changes to working patterns from employees wishing to attend the games, volunteer or avoid travel disruption. In some cases employers may need to offer flexible working in order to comply with requests from Transport for London to reduce their headcount during the Olympic period. This is only likely to be an issue for large employers based in critical areas in central London.

If staff are permitted to work from home during the Games it is important to ensure that they have access to the necessary facilities and resources at home. Remote access to IT systems is likely to be severely affected by abnormal usage levels, therefore some employers may need to “top up” the capacity of their remote servers to deal with the additional demand. This can be arranged on a temporary basis.

If flexible working is introduced, it should be formalised to ensure that staff are aware of their responsibilities during this period, and to reduce the likelihood of employees using the opportunity for flexible working as a means of watching or attending events, when they are supposed to be working. The policy should be communicated in good time and in a way that is easily accessible to all employees – for example, through the staff intranet.

Watching and following the Games at work

Many employees will want to watch or follow Olympic events during working hours. This can lead to problems with computer systems if large numbers of staff are simultaneously streaming live coverage, and despite possibly lifting staff morale, it may lead to a fall in productivity.

Employers may wish to provide facilities, such as a projector screen, televisions and/or radios, for employees to view or listen to events in communal areas during the working day. This will also provide opportunities for impromptu social meetings which may help to boost team morale, and employees may be less prone to breaching the rules at other times. However, employers should have a clear policy on what is permissible in terms of employees viewing and following coverage at work, and the consequences of breaching the policy. It would be sensible for such a policy to set out the employer’s expectations and requirements in this regard, emphasising that this is a privilege and not a right and that the work will need to be done.