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Should employers be going for gold in Scotland?

The London 2012 Olympic Games are now less than six months away. In anticipation of the big event, ACAS has published guidance to help employers minimise workplace disruption. Is the guidance relevant to employers in Scotland?
Contrast large scale travel disruption in London with the reported lack of demand for tickets to Olympic football matches at Hampden and you might struggle to think of the potential HR implications north of the border. However, employers here will face requests for time off for travelling to the Olympics as well as potential requests for time off to act as Olympic volunteers. Although levels of absenteeism may not quite reach the levels you’d expect if Scotland were to qualify for the world cup; with 40 to 45 Scottish Olympians in team GB it is not inconceivable that employers will notice a strain on their computer networks with increased live TV streaming from the internet. 
The message for Scottish employers is that they face many of the same potential workplace considerations as employers down south in view of the upcoming Olympics. These include competing annual leave requests, requests for flexible working hours or even bare faced requests to watch televised events at work. It is worth considering the potential for workplace disputes following accusations of favouritism or even unlawful discrimination if employees with particular sporting interests or e.g. particular nationalities are seen to be treated differently than others. You only have to look at the reported controversy surrounding the status of our nation’s football team during the Olympics to appreciate that sporting events stimulate all sorts of emotions among supporters. Although concern for the preservation of the Scottish national football team as opposed to anything insidious is at the heart of this particular Olympic football debate, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances in which workplace banter during the Olympics could get out of hand. The Olympics is perhaps less likely to stimulate the sort of “banter” that could cause offence than some other mass sporting events, but managers should be alert to these sorts of tensions and stamp them out before they grow arms and legs. 
As ever, communicating with staff and behaving consistently and fairly is key. In so far as holiday requests are concerned a robust absence management policy is a good place to start. Most employers operate a “first come, first served” policy to determine who is entitled to time off within a particular department or organisation. This isn’t necessarily appropriate in every organisation, but provided there is a system to allocate time off in a fair and reasonable manner and that system is transparent and universally applied, employees can expect to be treated fairly and employers can hope to prevent allegations of workplace bullying or less favourable treatment. Solid practices and procedures create certainty and can go a long way to promoting a positive working environment and maintaining trust between an organisation and its employees.
There is no particular right to take time off to complete volunteer duties.  Employers are free to take a business decision to grant special paid or unpaid leave for employees who wish to volunteer. Permitting employee volunteering is a great way to demonstrate corporate social responsibility, not to mention the added benefits volunteering can bring to employees who can develop their own skill-sets. Again, in considering a pro-volunteering policy employers should be careful to ensure they are not seen to be promoting the interests of some groups at the expense of others to avoid allegations of discrimination. ACAS are expected to publish further guidance to assist employers in this area, and with managing workplace issues during the Olympics in general in the coming months.
Even if an employer already has a robust annual leave policy in place, a little extra guidance in the form of specific guidelines to remind employees of the relevant rules during specific events or peak periods could prove to be useful. In drawing up such guidelines, ACAS suggest giving consideration to flexible working, even if only in the short term. This could of course encourage productivity in employees who otherwise might respond negatively and become demotivated in the face of a flat refusal to be flexible. Alternatively, authorising the use of the internet for live streaming Olympic TV coverage may be something to consider. Perhaps encouraging staff to socialise with one at the TV during popular events could prove to be good for boosting morale? The men’s 100 meters final only lasts 9 seconds after all!
That said, the ACAS guidance recognises that the needs of the business will come first. Clearly, what might work in one organisation may not be appropriate in another. Whatever employers decide to do staff rules ought to set out the expected standards of behaviour in a clear and unambiguous fashion to ensure staff know where they stand if they choose to spend the afternoon on YouTube! If performance or conduct issues arise in the wake of the Olympic Games, employers want to be able to fall back on clear disciplinary rules that are applied in the same predictable manner across the board to demonstrate they have behaved reasonably.
So by the time the Olympic Flame makes its way across Scotland in June it is hoped ACAS will have published further illuminating guidance on their website, accessible to employers and employees alike. Plans to adorn the walls of Edinburgh Castle with an Olympic sized reminder that the Games are taking place may now have been scrapped, but Scottish employers are nevertheless encouraged to plan ahead for the Olympics as ACAS suggest – at the very least as a practice run for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, or (fingers crossed) so that we all get some time off to watch Andy Murray’s first grand slam victory!
For further advice relating to Employment Law please contact Robert Holland.