Major sporting events and the workplace

Just before a 1998 World Cup match between England and Tunisia, BBC presenter Des Lynam leaned into the camera, stared the audience in the eye, and asked in a conspiratorial tone “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

This now-famous piece of sports broadcasting neatly illustrates the potential conflict between work obligations and events which attract a mass audience.

Is there a tipping point at which an event becomes a ‘national moment’? – Presenting employers with a choice between business as usual and making some concessions.

How a major sporting event can affect companies

A major sporting event may impact a business in several ways. These can include:

  • Lower productivity.
  • A surge in short notice leave requests.
  • Unauthorised staff absence.
  • Increased timekeeping issues.
  • Non-work related use of company internet resources to follow the event.
  • Problems linked to alcohol consumption.
  • Discord between employees who are fans of the event, and employees who are not interested.

Calculating the economic losses and gains attached to employees following a major sporting event is always difficult. The IMD Business School in Switzerland suggests that the 2018 FIFA World Cup puts $14.5 billion of global GDP at risk during the first two weeks of the competition. And that’s before the knockout stages attract larger audiences from countries with teams still in the competition.

The employer’s options

In human resources and management circles, the consensus view is that an employer should take the initiative and inform staff of what, if any, changes, will be allowed for the duration of the event.

The ACAS resource Major Sporting Events appreciates that the pull of some major events is so great that employers best serve themselves by openly discussing what is and isn’t possible with employees.

Personnel Today proposes a number of concessions an employer could make, with the intention of improving general morale and long-term staff engagement: World Cup 2018: Six goals for employers

  • Allow temporary working arrangements.
  • Provide special facilities (such as a viewing area).
  • Allow the office to be decorated by employee-fans.
  • Relax any dress code.

Both ACAS and Personnel Today argue that some minor concessions made to employee-fans will pay a dividend of improved morale and staff engagement. Of course, employers do not have to make any concessions – but a practical business leader will weigh the pros and cons before deciding.

Informal changing of hours

A common request is for an employee to work through their breaks so they can leave early, or make up for a late arrival. The Working Time Regulations 1998 do not explicitly forbid this, but the UK Government line is that taking breaks at the end of the working day is not desirable. For an employer, it’s worth asking if working without a break is sustainable over the month-long duration of the football World Cup, or the two weeks of Wimbledon.

Traps and things to avoid


UK law requires equal treatment of all employees, and all employees must be entitled to apply for whatever changes in conditions the employer allows for the duration of the event. No concession can be made exclusively to employee-fans whilst their colleagues keep working.

Should an employer decided to mark a great sporting occasion with an event of their own, this needs to be approached with particular care. In another IoD factsheet – How to keep your Christmas party on the right side of employment law – the issue of vicarious liability is explained. Simply put, any event an employer instigates – including watching football in a pub – makes the employer responsible for all attending employees.


Avoid making extravagant concessions over one event which you may be asked to repeat during another. So far the examples have been the FIFA World Cup and The Olympics, but an employer may be asked to show flexibility during the Rugby World Cup, The Ashes, Wimbledon and other mass audience events.

There must be red lines

An employer cannot compromise over policies which keep the workplace safe for all employees. Being drunk at work, aggressive or abusive behaviour, and neglect of health and safety procedures are some obvious examples of conduct which must be challenged. Failure to act raises both an immediate risk and the long term likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.

How the IoD can help

The most important step a company can take in managing issues raised by great sporting events (or any other disruptive external factor) is to already have in place a set of clear and consistent policies to guide employees. These can be enforced or relaxed at the employer’s discretion, but not having them at all invites problems. Key policies include:

  • Sickness absence policy
  • Disciplinary procedures policy
  • Substance misuse policy
  • Flexible working policy
  • IT and communications systems use policy

The IoD Business Information Service can provide template policies to full IoD members upon request.

The IoD Directors Advisory Service includes employment law and HR specialists available to discuss issues affecting IoD members.

IoD Directors Law Express is a legal helpline, especially useful when a fast response is needed.

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