While many workers will take time off to watch the Olympics – or be able to work from home – some employers just won’t play ball
Michael Forsyth is not a happy man. An Olympics fan since childhood, he has recently been told he cannot take any time off during the London 2012 event.
Forsyth, whose lifelong devotion was sparked by seeing Carl Lewis in 1984 equal Jesse Owen’s feat of winning four gold medals at a single Games, said: “I work at an asset management firm in the City and I have been told by my line manager that I cannot take annual leave during the Olympics unless I have tickets.
“I was working overseas at the time the tickets went on sale and couldn’t organise myself quickly enough to buy any, but I wanted to take a fortnight off to watch the Games on TV and enjoy the party atmosphere. Instead, I’ll be working 7am until 5pm most days. It doesn’t seem very fair.”
Many companies will be lenient during the Olympic period, but under current employment law they are not obliged to grant holiday requests to those who managed to get tickets, nor will they be compelled to offer timely benefits such as flexible working or paid time off for volunteering. It means employees who assume they will have enhanced employment rights during the Games could be in for a rude awakening – many will be find themselves fencing with their boss rather than watching Olympians go at it in East London.
Here’s our rundown on the issues that you might face this summer.
Full-time employees are entitled, as a minimum, to 28 days’ holiday (inclusive of bank and public holidays) but employers can refuse requests provided that they are not preventing the employee from taking their statutory holiday over the year.
“The Games fall in the middle of the busiest holiday time of the year for employers,” says Philip Landau, employment lawyer at Landau Zeffertt Weir Solicitors. “You are entitled to request holiday time, but you must give your employer advance notice, which should be at least twice as long as the amount of holiday you want to take.”
Staff who are parents may well have leapt in early to claim much of August, making a difficult task worse.
Under Working Time Regulations employers can refuse holiday requests as long as they give notice of at least as long as the holiday requested – to refuse a request for four days’ leave, they would have to tell an employee four days in advance. But with more than the usual number of holiday requests expected during the Olympics, unlucky workers may well find themselves dealing with their colleagues’ in-trays rather than watching the inspiring efforts of Olympic hopefuls.
“This is a tricky one for employers,” Landau says. “They may simply decide on a first-come, first-served basis, or have some other policy to determine who should be allowed the time off. Whatever approach is taken, the policy should be applied consistently and on a non–discriminatory basis.”
Sarah Tahamtani, employment partner at Leeds law firm Clarion, says if an employee has a holiday request denied they can raise a grievance, but they should proceed with caution because “there is no guarantee this will change the decision”.
For those who do have to go to work, lateness brought about by congestion from the expected flood of people going to the Games will be a contentious issue. Transport for London’s (TFL) projections show that commuters could face tube delays of at least a half-hour at some stations, and even longer at London Bridge, where overground commuters will collide with those using the Jubilee Line to get to major events at Stratford and the O2. Bus routes and timings will also be affected and road alterations could disrupt car commuters.
It’s not only workers and commuters in the capital who will suffer – there are plenty of popular events around the country that could see local employees’ travel plans disrupted.
The government-backed website getaheadofthegames.com advises workers to find out if their journey will be affected and plan in advance as well as avoid trouble areas. It is also advising businesses to encourage staff to walk or cycle where possible.
Tahamtani says that if you think you are likely to be late for work, you should warn your employer well in advance and to try to put arrangements in place. “If your boss knows your expected time of arrival, he or she may be able to cover your work with your colleagues or managers.”
Landau says that less understanding employers will be entitled to dock pay for lateness: “The default position is that you are not entitled to be paid for time that you are not in work unless your employer otherwise agrees.”
Forsyth (not his real name), says his employers have been as unforgiving on lateness as on taking holiday. “I work in an industry that is all about making money so if workers don’t turn up it impacts directly on the bottom line. Even so, things could have been done a lot better than they have. An email went to all staff warning us that lateness will not be tolerated during the Games and we should simply leave home earlier to ensure we are at our desks on time. The inference is that people who do not make it in on time can expect to face disciplinary action.”
If you are late for reasons beyond your control and your employer takes disciplinary action that you consider to be unfair, you have the right to appeal. “If the worst happens and your employer dismisses you – and you consider this to be unfair – you should appeal the decision,” Tahamtani says. “If the dismissal is upheld and you still feel unfairly treated, you may have a claim for unfair dismissal.”
Don’t take a sickie, especially if you are going to the Games – you could be spotted on TV whooping in the crowd when you should be at your desk. “Unless there is a genuine sickness, lying to your boss could amount to gross misconduct,” says Landau. “For one day’s illness, your boss could never prove that you were in fact well enough to come to work, but the risk remains.”
If you are genuinely ill at a time when a hotly-anticipated Olympic event is taking place, make sure you get a note from your doctor as proof, as it could help head off any disciplinary action. “But don’t do anything to suggest you are anything but ill,” adds Tahamtani. “For example, do not post careless and inappropriate comments on social media sites.”
The benign boss
Happily, many employers will be allowing people to work from home or work flexibly. Melody King, a product manager for healthcare software company Ascensus, says her employer is giving staff a lot of freedom, and is shifting meeting times to ensure everyone can attend the Games – useful as she commutes from near Bedford.
“Our office is moving to Waterloo within the next month and Olympic delays are expected,” she says. “I’m allowed to work from home and on the days when I will be in the office, our regular team meeting has been shifted from early morning to the middle of the day to avoid the commuter rush. I’m really pleased I can get in to attend the meetings without being stuck on a train for hours.
“I have an encrypted laptop and connect to the office network using a VPN and we’re using technology in other ways, including conference calling and Skype.”
Stephen Read, managing director of recruitment specialist SHL, said an Olympic cycle route will be going right past his head office in Thames Ditton, so he is allowing staff to work flexibly. “We have a business continuity plan in place, so we’ve planned for the Olympics with practice sessions and drills. Everyone is equipped with laptops, internet connectivity and Skype, so we can ensure a continued good service to customers.
“For us it’s also about encouraging staff to enjoy the Games. We’re allowing volunteers to take time off and are installing widescreen TVs for staff to watch the events. We don’t want to risk unwanted employee absenteeism.”
The good news is that while workers are contractually obliged to work their hours and it is their responsibility to ensure they arrive at work on time, employers do not have the right to change their staff’s contractual hours.
Niki Walker, partner in the employment team at international law firm Taylor Wessing says employees might instead be offered a compressed week, changing their core hours, or staggered start and finish times. And before you lodge a complaint because your colleagues in the London office are allowed to work from home and you’re not, there is nothing in the law to state that temporary measures granted to workers in one office should be rolled out nationwide.