Is your business ready for the World Cup?

And with a predicted spike in the number of employees taking time off work to watch their team in action, international legal practice DLA Piper has warned that UK businesses may not be as prepared as they should be to manage employee relations during the tournament.

In a small survey of business leaders and HR professionals from across the UK, 51% of respondents said they planned to offer flexible working to staff who want to watch the England games, with many citing shift swapping (33%), early finishes (59%) and late starts (35%) as part of their strategy for supporting World Cup fever without impacting on productivity.

But despite their positive approach, many companies could be inadvertently creating an employee relations headache, with only 19% planning to offer flexible working patterns for all World Cup matches. Furthermore, 76% plan to offer no flexibility at all to staff who don’t follow football.

Tim Marshall, UK head of employment and partner at DLA Piper, explains why this approach could cause problems: “After what has been a really tough couple of years, a lot of UK businesses are seeing the World Cup as providing a bit of light relief and are offering flexibility as a way of boosting employee relations, as well as trying to mitigate the impact of unexpected absences in the workplace.

“Shift swapping and flexible hours are all great strategies, but business leaders need to consider the finer implications of their actions. By failing to offer staff who follow teams other than England the same opportunities for flexible working, employers are potentially opening themselves up to allegations of discrimination. Equally, by not offering flexible working patterns to staff that don’t follow football at all, and expecting them to pick up their colleagues work, bosses could be undoing much of the goodwill they have tried to create.”

As well as asking questions about flexible working plans, the survey also asked business leaders how they planned to deal with sporting events other than the World Cup. Interestingly, whilst a high proportion of businesses said that they would offer flexibility around the World Cup, only 22% of those planning to do so were considering offering the same freedom during other sporting events, such as Wimbledon or the forthcoming 2012 Olympic Games.

Marshall comments: “Offering flexibility during a huge sporting tournament like the World Cup sets a precedent among staff, and employers would be well advised to remember that many people are just as passionate about tennis or athletics as they are football. Companies need to consider if they are willing and prepared to extend the same flexibility to staff for future events, or they could be setting themselves up for problems later.”

Although many of the World Cup matches are to be screened online, during working hours, respondents to the survey had not considered their policies towards internet usage during the day, with only 18% reviewing their usage policies to ensure staff were aware of the limits of acceptable internet use. And whilst many employers recognise the enthusiasm for the World Cup amongst their staff and offering flexible working options to accommodate match screenings, only 16% were reviewing their alcohol policies.

Marshall concludes: “Despite the numerous reports of likely World Cup fever and staff absence, companies seem very relaxed about how they are going to deal with the tournament and its staffing implications, with 68% claiming they had no plans to review their policies or issue guidance to staff on acceptable behaviour during the tournament.

“Offering flexibility to staff during such an important event has the potential to be a great morale boost, but business leaders should make sure that they have thought through their approach and that they have laid down fair and equitable rules across the business that don’t unfairly disadvantage any group or create potential conflicts for the future.

“Failing to set the boundaries now could make it difficult to defend your position further down the line, so it’s critical that in these last few days before kick off, staff know what is and isn’t acceptable conduct so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful game.”