With the kick off of the 2010 FIFA World Cup imminent, employers will be dreading the onset of sickies, absenteeism and headaches which is sure to follow. What can employers can do to avoid scoring an own goal?

The World Cup can bring out the best and, unfortunately, the worst in people. The competitive atmosphere can magnify animosity or even racial tension within the workplace with problems for both staff and employer. "Harmless banter" may escalate into something more sinister.

Most football-related banter would not cause problems. However, when the banter becomes personal or nationalistic, problems can arise. Sore losers taking out their post-match frustrations on supporters of other national teams, could in today's multi-cultural workplace give rise to conflicts.  If these hostilities are fuelled by nationality, the employer could leave themselves open to claims of discrimination - with the potential outcome of being liable for the actions of their employees. 

Employers need to be wary of the "it's not racism - it's football" response and ensure that robust equal opportunities, disciplinary and non-harassment/bullying policies are in place and are followed.  It is important that such policies make clear that offensive behaviour directed towards employees of the same or different nationalities or races will not be tolerated and will be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

With South Africa hosting this year, most matches will take place in the late afternoon or evening, which may mean employees phoning in sick in order to watch a game or simply not making it into work the following morning. Most employers will tell you that absenteeism escalates during the World Cup and what may seem like an innocent day spent watching a game, is actually costing business millions of pounds in lost productivity and revenue.  Employers can take steps now however, to help ensure that they are prepared to deal with this problem.

Businesses may well already have robust rules and procedures for dealing with absences, but it might be a good time to proactively issue a reminder to employees of such policies, including the possibility, in certain cases, of disciplinary measures.

Employers could find themselves in the tricky situation of having to assess whether employees have genuinely been off ill or whether they have been 'pulling sickies' meriting disciplinary action.  Back to work interviews, although time consuming, can often provide invaluable evidence that may assist. Even if it is not possible to show that an employer has 'pulled a sickie', the knowledge that they will have to meet their employers' eye could make it less likely that the behaviour will be repeated at the next game.  Disciplinary procedures, should, of course, be applied consistently across the entire workforce.

Some employees may see the World Cup as meriting use of their annual leave entitlement and employers could proactively suggest this option to staff.  This could be subject to an authorisation process, to deter absenteeism and might be subject to a first come first served priority, with a minimum notice requirement and the option for the employer to refuse. 

Alternatively, those employers with a soft spot for the beautiful game may wish to permit temporary flexible working or unpaid leave, in order to accommodate those wishing to watch matches. If this can be accommodated in your workplace it may have positive benefits of improving staff relations and even reducing absenteeism across the board.

The competition is sure to be eventful – just don't let the drama spill into your business.

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