With the long-awaited tournament kicking off on Sunday 20th November, Chris Hendry, a Senior Associate at Viberts, explores workplace issues that can arise from the World Cup, and advises how companies can make the most of the competition.
The World Cup is the biggest event in the footballing calendar. The globe’s most elite footballing talent (sadly excluding Scotland) will compete between 20th November and 18th December to be crowned the best footballing nation in the world.
Due to the time difference many of the games will fall within traditional working hours here in Jersey. This is combined with the already busy social season in the run up to Christmas.
The competition itself has been subject to scrutiny and concern due to:
- The health and safety of playing conditions in Qatar.
- Allegations of bribery and corruption during the bidding process.
- The human rights concerns over the conditions workers have faced in Qatar.
Like it or loathe it, the subject of workplace conversations, will increasingly be football based. Sports punditry may be entirely innocent. However, sometimes light-hearted “banter” can spiral into something more. In this article we explore how employers and employees can enjoy the football and limit the risk of discrimination claims or potential disciplinary action.
Locker room banter
In a controversial interview conducted by the BBC in January 2020, Ann Francke, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute suggested an outright ban on sports talk in the workplace.
Her basis for this position was that the discussion of sport in the workplace and associated banter alienates women and that these exchanges are often too ‘laddish’ for the workplace.
Unsurprisingly, the interview was met with a mixed response. The comments were made from the perspective of trying to make the workplace more inclusive. Whilst the sentiment is to be applauded, her approach will be considered by many as flawed. Sport and its associated conversations are more often seen as an opportunity for cohesion and unity. The beautiful game has a history of bringing people together in even the most difficult circumstances. For example, during the ‘Christmas truce’ in 1914 hostilities were suspended between Germany and the UK and no-man’s land was transformed into a makeshift football pitch.
The approach of banning sport from the office, for this reason, doesn’t acknowledge the achievements and popularity of sports women and female teams. At the Paris 1900 Olympic Games, female athletes competed in only five events and represented 2.2% of competitors. Women now constitute 48.8% of competitors. Women have become leaders and inspire through their contribution to sport. The recent triumph of the Lionesses bringing home the Euro 2022 trophy following an epic 2-1 win over Germany has changed the way the nation views women’s football.
Off the field there is also long overdue change. The new Chairwoman of the English Football Association Debbie Hewitt took up her office January 2022, making her the first female chair in the English Football Association in its 157-year history.
Unfortunately, discrimination is not uncommon in football. The FIFPRO report ‘What Equal Playing Field?’ published in November 2021 confirmed that discriminatory abuse is still rife and worryingly on the rise.
Despite Gareth Southgate, the England manager’s, open letter to fans written ahead of the Euro 2020 tournament, in which he raised concerns about players receiving online abuse, three England players were targeted by a torrent of racial abuse after missing penalties in England’s Euro final defeat to Italy.
As discussions take place over the coming weeks, it is important for organisations and their employees to be mindful of discrimination issues, and more generally, inappropriate behaviour.
The Discrimination (Jersey) Law 2013 prohibits (amongst other things) discrimination on the grounds of sex or race. It is important to note race is widely defined and includes discrimination based on colour, nationality, national origins, and ethnic origins.
Liability for discrimination under the 2013 Law is an issue not only for employers, but also for employees who can face personal liability for discriminatory actions. During the world cup employers and employees need to remember to consider others, inclusively, and avoid making comments which might make people feel excluded based on their sex or race.
Importantly the intent of the offensive comment is irrelevant. The all-important test is how the victim was made to feel. Also, a solitary incident can be enough to constitute discrimination under the 2013 Law. This means there is no free kick for an alleged perpetrator to test the water with a potentially discriminatory line of ‘banter’.
Employers should remind staff that harassment linked to the world cup, for example hostile or racist remarks about a particular country, will not be tolerated and could potentially result in disciplinary action.
If employers offer any special arrangement for home nation fans e.g. reduced hours to watch the game, the same arrangements should be offered to fans from other countries.
Notwithstanding the above potential issues, the competition represents an opportunity for employers to increase employee engagement and morale.
An easy win for morale
As we move into the colder winter months and particularly following Mental Health Awareness Day on the 10th October, mental health is high on the workplace agenda. Organisations can use the world cup as an easy morale boost:
- Matches could be screened in the office, in spare meeting rooms.
- Increase flexibility around working hours to allow staff to watch matches.
- Where feasible, more flexibility around holiday requests e.g. half days to watch the game.
- Employees could be allowed to view games together (don’t forget to invite those who may still be working from home!)
- Temporary relaxation of office dress code e.g., football shirts to be worn.
Don’t get caught offside
To avoid any own goals employers should:
- Monitor sickness absence in the normal way.
- Ensure that any ‘under the influence’ alcohol policies are in place and employees are aware of them.
- Remind employees of the company’s policy on usage of social media. This should include usage during working hours, a zero tolerance on race and other discrimination and the potential repercussions (disciplinary or possible dismissal) for bringing the company into disrepute because of their social media posts.
- Have a clear policy on watching games during working hours. This will need to cover company computers and/or an employee’s own device, together with a reminder of company policy regarding personal use of internet during working hours.
Enjoy the football!
Pictured: Chris Hendry, Associate and Scottish Solicitor at Viberts