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The World Cup. The Olympics. Wimbledon. There’s always another major sporting event around the corner. If your staff want time off to watch England lose to Germany on penalties (again), what are the rules for employers?  

Do you have to give staff time off to watch major sporting events? No. There’s no rule anywhere that says you need to give your people time off to watch that historic final. The problem, of course, is that lots of employers choose to give staff time off, which puts pressure on you to do the same.  

So although there are no rules about whether you have to let staff enjoy time off to watch, there are some steps and conventions to follow if you choose to do so. 

1. Understand the impact 

Before you agree anything, it’s important to understand the impact of offering staff any time to watch a sporting event. What is the cost of shutting production? Will you still be able to meets service levels, deadlines and other commitments? Will you need minimum levels of cover for phone lines? Will you need staff to make up the time off?      

2. Set the strategy 

We know two people who are passionate followers of tennis and cricket respectively. Each year, they book annual leave to cover at least some of the grand slam tennis tournaments and England’s test matches. 

Assuming their booking of the same leave slots every year doesn’t cause production issues or colleague friction, most employers would likely be happy enough with this arrangement. 

The challenge for employers is drawing the line between those events and the big ‘where were you when…?’ sporting moments that everyone wants to see. Those are the times when the rush to book annual leave would likely cause so much aggravation that you might feel it worth letting as many people as possible take time out or time off to watch. As a general rule of thumb, the considerations here are: 

i) Is the event a ‘one off’ or culturally significant event? Your home nation in a World Cup final might fit this description. Your local team reaching the second round of the FA Trophy probably wouldn’t. 

ii) Is there sufficient mass appeal to cause issues if everyone wants leave? For many employers, the driver for agreeing time to watch major sporting events is the risk of conflict, loss of morale or unauthorised absence if they don’t. 

That might be a credible risk should a home nation reach a major tournament final. The risk won’t be quite the same if Great Britain reaches the final of the water polo at the World Aquatics Championships. We’re not diminishing water polo, just reflecting that its appeal is more niche. Individuals who are passionate about it can probably book leave without risk to business operations. 

iii) Is the event time limited? You may feel the business can afford 90 minutes for a football match. You’ll probably be less inclined to allow time out for five five-day test matches, or the whole length of the Olympics.   

3. Communicate the rules 

Be clear about what’s happening, what you are offering, and what (if anything) you’ll need staff to offer in return. 

  • If an important match/event is taking place in works time, explain who can watch it, where, and for how long. Should everyone gather round the TV in the canteen? Should they watch from their desk? Can they use office devices to watch? Is it acceptable for everyone to disappear to the pub? 
  • Be clear about any need to make up time and lay out how you expect this to happen and by when. 
  • Be sure to make provision for home workers, shift workers and part-time staff, and anticipate any challenges. If a homeworker could have the TV on in the background and effectively watch the match without formally taking time out, how do you square that with in-office staff who may need to work back time?
  • Agree levels of cover required in advance. While it may be reasonable to ask staff who are uninterested in the event to cover for colleagues who are, what will you do to ensure those cover staff aren’t left disadvantaged? 
  • Respond to annual leave requests consistently. 
  • Be sure to inform HR, payroll and estates of your plans, and ensure all staff know of any changes to logging/clocking in/out procedures on HR systems. 

4. Review impact 

Post event, look at the actual impact on the business. Consider: 

  • Any increase in sickness on the day of the event 
  • Any unauthorised absences 
  • Any increase in complaints or call wait times during the event 
  • The effect on operations/production 
  • Any cost impacts 

Use the information to modify your approach to the next event, so everyone gets to enjoy sport’s biggest moments without causing problems for your business. 

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