Managing Absenteeism in the Work Place

Published: 27 October 2013

The London 2012  Olympic and Paralympic Games have come and gone and are becoming a distant memory. Despite all the build-up and preparation for the Games, they proved to be a disruption for many employers who had to deal with sudden work place absences and ‘sickies’.  

Steven Eckett, Consultant Solicitor and Head of Employment provides some useful tips on how employers can in the future deal with absenteeism in the workplace, particularly when it coincides with major sporting events. 

Below, we will look at:-

  1. Dealing with multiple requests for time off
  2. Dealing with absenteeism
  3. Avoiding claims of discrimination

Following our simple guidance should help employers and employees have a clear understanding of each other's expectations.

Dealing with multiple requests for time off

There are a number of possibilities open to employers in an attempt to appease staff who are desperate for time off, whilst ensuring that disruption to the workplace is kept to a minimum. Here are some ideas which it is hoped will motivate staff as opposed to demoralising them:

  • Try and secure agreement with employees well in advance if at all possible so that they can take annual leave if they need time off and are avid sports fans. It is a good idea to have a written policy so that employers can allocate  time off on either a random or a ‘first come first served' basis up to a maximum quota in various parts of the workplace in order to minimise disruption to the business at vital times. Alternatively there is nothing to stop employers preventing staff from taking annual leave during this period but this is likely to prove unpopular and some staff may want time off for other genuine reasons, for example to go on holiday. A prohibition may also prove counter-productive and cause an increase in sickness absence.
  • Another option is to consider special unpaid leave for some members of staff, especially if a particular member of staff's annual leave entitlement has been exhausted. The problem with this type of arrangement is that it will only work where a small number of the workforce requires time off and again employers can consider accommodating staff on a random or a ‘first come first served' basis. In addition  it is also fair to be consistent in this approach with other major sporting events where diehard fans want time off, for example to watch Wimbledon, the Grand Prix or major cricketing events.
  • Consider introducing temporary flexible working practices on match days whereby staff can be given longer breaks to enable them to watch vital sports, on the basis that they attend work earlier or later to make up the time, or perhaps work through their usual lunch break. This may however not be possible for all businesses to accommodate. Employers will also need to monitor time keeping to ensure that the system is not being abused. If staff are working fixed rota systems then do consider allowing staff the opportunity of swapping their shifts with other work colleagues.
  • Some employers may be more generous, allowing staff to watch vital matches by screening them in the workplace. You can perhaps allow staff the opportunity to watch the match on a flexible working basis as long as they make up the time. Alternatively employers may wish to operate a rota system whereby all staff have the option of having a short break at regular intervals. Again it is vital to have a written policy and to warn staff that you are providing this on a discretionary basis and that any abuse of the privilege will result in its being withdrawn. The benefit of this is that staff are at work and productive for the most part instead of having to take annual leave and it will undoubtedly be a morale booster.
  • Many employers of course prohibit alcohol in the workplace, and whether employers decide to relax their policies in this respect depends on their size and resources and importantly the type of work that staff are expected to undertake, for example whether this will involve the use of machinery or require concentration after the match has finished. Our advice is to adhere to any existing prohibitions on consuming alcohol in the workplace in order to avoid additional problems that could affect performance and conduct and to keep any disruption to the business to a minimum.

Dealing with sudden absenteeism

Many employers will find a number of employees will be tempted to take a ‘sickie' on popular sporting days  or the following day if they have a post event  hangover, or in fact may simply fail to turn up without any advance warning or notification. The best way to deal with this type of abuse is for employers to be proactive in taking action by reminding staff in advance of all relevant polices. Here are some suggestions:

  • Employers could issue all staff with an early internal memo or notification which clearly reminds everyone of the internal company policy on watching major sporting events, and on consuming alcohol in the work place. The memo or notification should also remind staff that anyone who attends work either late or not at all during any major sporting events  without prior authorisation may be subject to disciplinary action in accordance with any internal disciplinary procedure. This will involve a degree of internal investigation with the issuing of a formal warning. In severe cases involving dishonesty on the part of the employee it may justify dismissal either with or without notice. Employers are also reminded that they need to follow the ACAS Code of conduct in implementing any fair and reasonable internal disciplinary procedure.
  • Employers can require that employees who phone in sick at a time when there is a major sporting tournament  provide medical evidence in the form of a relevant fit note. The problem here, however, is that not all General Practitioners may be willing to provide a fit note as they do not have to do so for sickness absences of less than 7 days. In addition some General Practitioners may charge for the privilege. It is important for employers to implement any policy consistently, even for those members of staff who you do not suspect of abusing your policies and who may have a genuine ailment.

Avoiding allegations of discrimination

Another important consideration for employers is not to be accused of unlawfully discriminating in favour of one part of the workforce, even innocently! Employers need to be careful in bringing to the attention of their staff the type of behaviour that they will tolerate when it comes to supporting national teams. Employers need to make it clear in advance that the teasing of supporters of one national team by the supporters of another could easily result in race discrimination complaints. Remember that employers are vicariously liable for the unlawful actions of their staff unless they can show that they took reasonable prohibitive steps. The burden of proof is on the employer.

The recent Olympic experience also successfully demonstrated the popularity of women taking part in sport and so it is important to remember that female members of staff will be entitled to treatment and consideration equal to their male counterparts in being afforded the same opportunities and the same treatment for any contravention of internal policies. Failure to treat women in the same way can lead to allegations of sex discrimination.

On the other hand some women may not be interested in sport  but may reasonably request time off for either other sporting events in the calendar year or perhaps non-sports events. Employers need to be consistent in their approach to such requests for time off for other reasons.

Conclusion

Legal problems can be kept to a minimum if employers and their HR Departments plan ahead and make clear to staff what is considered acceptable in terms of seeking time off and conduct in the workplace. Hopefully employers who are proactive in this regard will be successful in keeping disruption to a minimum and maintaining acceptable levels of productivity during any major sporting events.

For specific advice on tailoring specific policies to your organisation please contact Steven Eckett, Consultant Solicitor in the Employment Team.