Game for a laugh?

Employers may have created some risky precedents in their management of staff during the Olympic Games, says Anne Pritam

Are you reading this as you work from home – authorised by a sympathetic manager? Has your supervising partner agreed you can sneak out of the office, because you got fab tickets for the evening event? Do you and your boss have BBC Sports conveniently minimised on a corner of your workscreens? Are you a Games volunteer?

I’ll readily admit I am sport-illiterate. To the incredulity of my family I was heard to utter the words “What race?” while cooking dinner on (Super) Saturday. But I am in a tiny minority. Olympimania has swept the nation and has prompted some uncharacteristic employer reactions to issues that in any other context would seem clear-cut and could lead to disciplinary action.

Games policies abound. Any employment lawyer will tell you that self-respecting employers need policies to ensure management consistency. But as soon as an organisation has reduced to writing its instinctive reactions to certain situations, at least three risks arise: (i) the policy doesn’t cover the weird situations that human workforces seem eternally capable of generating; (ii) deeming an external event worthy of an internal policy begs the question what else should trigger the creation of a policy; and (iii) the policy must be applied and enforced, ideally with consistency.

Attending the Games surely should require leave to be requested through the usual channels. Why is watching live sport different from wanting to leave early to go to the theatre, to start a long weekend journey, or to play sport?

In some companies, Games volunteers have benefited from favourable arrangements for time off and partial pay during volunteering. One company has equated Games volunteering to serving in the reserve forces. This is a real legal muddle. There are statutory provisions governing time off for reservists; Games volunteering is a contractual arrangement between employer and employee. Elevating Games volunteers to a special status could prompt employees who work with charities, volunteer in schools, or simply care for needy dependants to wonder why their altruism seems less valued – and potentially to seek similar arrangements. Refusal may not only cause offence, but also discrimination claims.

Relaxing home-working restrictions was a common and understandable response to the predicted Underground Armageddon. Tumbleweed now blows through offices as employees stay at home, beavering away (no TV on, of course). Firms have seen physical distance is not fatal to business – and what may prove to be useful evidence for potential claimants whose flexible-working requests have been denied. A precedent has been set from which employers cannot easily row back.

And what of the paralegal assiduously working on a bundle index, but actually glued to the screen watching Team GB?

It is reasonable – and accords with the standard principles of most IT/internet usage policies – to expect sports enthusiasts, even during the Games, to restrict viewing to formal breaks and out of hours.

But how to apply those policies? The key is management enforcement and workforce buy-in. But that’s just not happening in the real world where colleagues freely watch and debate the latest medal “we” have won.

Consistent HR policies and disciplinary codes are not the only casualties of Olympimania. The principles of equality law that tell us that we should disregard nationality, race, age, gender and disability are temporarily forgotten as we office-bound creatures gaze incredulously at the exploits of some of the fittest humans who walk, sprint, cycle, ride and sail this planet.

And when they make F1 an Olympic sport, I might even watch

Anne Pritam is an employment partner at Stephenson Harwood