UK: The London 2012 Olympics: Employment Issues In The UK

Last Updated: 27 January 2012
Article by Emma Richardson

This coming summer over 10 million people are expected to visit the Olympic and Paralympic Games as spectators. This influx of people will have a huge impact on the daily lives of workers in the capital and therefore employers. With over 70% of the events taking place in London, there are fears that employees may struggle to get to work on the overburdened public transport system. In addition, there will no doubt be employees who may wish to escape the capital entirely. Others may want to take time off to watch events and some employees may have volunteered as "Games Makers".

While the Olympics do not start until July 2012, employers should consider how they will deal with these issues at an early stage. For the most part (and subject of course to any existing policies or contractual obligations) how an employer approaches the various employment implications of the Olympics will be a commercial decision. Since this will inevitably involve a careful balancing act between ensuring effective staffing and maintaining employee morale, a healthy and transparent dialogue with employees is likely to be key to avoiding disquiet.

Holiday Requests

Since holiday requests may be abnormally high for the period of the Games, employers should consider how they are going to operate their holiday policies in that period. The key issue for employers will be to ensure sufficient staffing levels during the Olympics to maintain the smooth running of their business. However, when it comes to the consideration and potential rejection of holiday requests, employers will also be keen to minimise discontent in the workplace and avoid undermining the collegiate atmosphere the Olympics might promote. Accordingly, refusals need to be dealt with fairly to avoid complaints of unfair treatment or even unlawful discrimination. Employers will also need carefully to consider whether to set parameters on leave. For example, employers may decide to:

  • give preference to employees who have successfully volunteered as Games Makers and/or those who have secured tickets (and, if employees have tickets for more than one event, perhaps asking the individual to prioritise); and/or
  • limit the total number of days' leave or consecutive days of leave employees are allowed to take during the period of the Games.

Once a strategy is determined, the easiest method to avoid complaints might appear to be a "first come first served" approach to approvals. However, if employers inform employees that they will start to consider requests from a certain date a barrage of requests will no doubt be received on that very day. Furthermore, since different departments within a business will no doubt have different staffing requirements, a "first come first served" policy may not be viable nor appropriate across the board.

The safest alternative to a "first come first served" policy may be to conduct an anonymous draw after having identified which employees wish to take leave (which may need to be undertaken on a department by department basis).

This may be seen as too staged to be sensible, in which case the managers in question will need to tread carefully in deciding which employees will be allowed to take leave.

Concessions

To help reduce the number of holiday requests, employers should consider whether they plan to make any concessions during the Olympics. For example, employers may decide to provide television coverage at the workplace for key events to avoid absences for those who have not secured holiday leave. However, employers will need to consider how this can sensibly be managed given the number and variety of events compared with, for example, the football World Cup where matches – and particularly England matches – are fewer in number.

It may be prudent to put in place an authorisation system for watching events during working hours as well as providing for a maximum period during the working day which employees are entitled to watch the Games (which could coincide with, or equate to, the employee's usual breaks). In any event, employers should guard against having policies which favour, for example, events involving athletes or teams from a particular country.

Flexible Working

Employers may also wish to consider whether implementing a flexible working policy may be a sensible way forward if it is feasible. Flexible working could ease the stress and delay of the daily commute and improve the effectiveness and contribution of staff. London 2012 and Transport for London ("TfL") expect severe delays for six weeks and recommend that travel is avoided via travel hotspots and on a number of lines (in particular the Central and Jubilee Lines and DLR) at "peak" times, these being 08:00 to 11:00; 16:00 to 20:00; and 22:00 to the last train. London 2012 has developed tools to assist workplaces identify how they might be affected (available from the TfL website http://www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/london2012/21677.aspx). Employers with over 200 staff are also entitled to a consultant from TfL to assist with travel planning.

The period during which travelling is likely to be most difficult will, unsurprisingly, coincide directly with the time employees would ordinarily travel to and from work. While it may be possible to alter working hours (for example starting at 07:00 and finishing at 15:00) it may be that this does not accord with business needs. Furthermore, since the Games take place throughout the day at different times and locations, employees who use public transport may find that travelling at any given time is difficult. Home-working may therefore be a further option if it is viable.

Home-working presents its own set of problems for employers. In practical terms, the employer will inevitably have less day to day control over the workforce and co-ordinating the efforts of an entire team working remotely may be difficult. In addition, employers are responsible for an employee's health, safety and welfare while working at home. Accordingly, a suitable risk assessment of all work activities carried out by any potential home-worker should ideally be undertaken before home-working is approved.

Before deciding whether flexible or home-working arrangements are appropriate, employers should:

  • use the London 2012 tools to assess how they are likely to be affected by the Olympics
  • analyse its staff demographic to ascertain which employees may find it difficult to attend work
  • consider how much "on the ground" presence they require in the office (and whether this differs during the working day)
  • consider how to avoid complaints of unequal treatment – if many staff will struggle to attend work, a rota system may be most appropriate.

Games Makers

Those who wished to volunteer to assist with the Olympics were required to apply by 27 October 2010. The process of selecting successful candidates is due to continue until early 2012.

Successful applicants will be required to attend at least three training sessions in early 2012 and to work at the Olympics for a minimum of 10 days (or 20 days if volunteering for both the Olympics and Paralympics). According to London 2012, once individuals have been allocated their shifts these cannot be changed. The aim is, however, to let volunteers know their shift allocations by April 2012.

At this stage, employers should ask their employees to confirm whether they have volunteered. Before issuing any policy on volunteers, it may be prudent for employers to await ACAS' guidance on Games Makers. In any event, the key issue to consider, so far as volunteers are concerned, is the decision whether the individual will be required to take holiday in order to volunteer. The alternative is to allow employees to take a period of unpaid leave or indeed leave additional to the usual annual holiday entitlement. The issue with allowing paid or unpaid leave is that this could be argued to create a precedent or expectation in respect of volunteer work more generally.

Finally

However an employer decides to deal with the Olympics, it is important that their policies do not unlawfully discriminate between workers. The best way to avoid complaints is for employers to start thinking about these issues as soon as possible. Once a plan has been developed, entering into a dialogue with employees about any concerns or suggestions they have may be the best way to avoid complaints further down the line by nipping any issues in the bud. Talking to employees about these issues should also help promote the collegiate atmosphere that hosting the Olympics is bound to create.

From a practical perspective employers should take the following initial steps:

  • review current policies, if any, on holiday leave, flexible working, home-working and volunteering
  • conduct a survey/collect data to ascertain: how employers may be affected by the Olympics; their preferences as to holiday leave; their ability to work flexibly and/or from home and whether or not they have volunteered as Games Makers
  • speak with managers of business areas to ascertain whether informal arrangements for holiday leave, flexible working, home-working and/or volunteering are already in place and also whether any questions have already been raised/addressed about the Olympics
  • consider staffing requirements (on a department by department basis) during the Olympics and how many staff actually need to undertake their work from the employer's premises
  • prepare a strategy/policy for dealing with the Olympics to issue to employees including details of leave, flexible and home-working arrangements
  • consider inviting comments on a draft policy from employees (or an appropriate existing or specially elected employee representative body).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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