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An Employer’s Guide to the World Cup

By Fiona W. Ong - Shawe Rosenthal LLP

November 21, 2022

Well, the 2022 World Cup is finally underway in Qatar. Although professional soccer does not drive quite the same amount of interest among the U.S. populace as, say, football or basketball, the World Cup is still one of the major sporting events in the world – and there are likely many employees who are following it rather closely. And unlike last time in 2018, the U.S. team has qualified for the tournament, so there may be some patriotism at play here. So we thought we might offer employers some guidance on World Cup issues in the workplace.

Productivity.  The World Cup takes place over the course of a month – starting on November 20 and ending with the final on December 18, often with multiple games each day. Given that the games are being played during the U.S. workday for the most part, employees may be checking scores or even watching the games during work time – either on work computers or personal devices. Moreover, the increase in the number of remote employees increases the opportunity for unsanctioned viewing.

Employers have a number of tools to address productivity issues. There are aggressive options like monitoring and surveillance technologies. If employers choose to utilize these technologies, they need to ensure that they are in compliance with state laws regarding electronic monitoring. For example, Connecticut and Delaware require employers to provide notice of the use of electronic surveillance technologies. New York not only requires notice, but also written receipts from employees acknowledging such notice. Thus it is important for employers to confirm whether there are any applicable state laws. And frankly, giving written notice of monitoring, such as through a policy, is a good idea, regardless of whether or not it is required by law. Of particular importance, such policies should be clear employees should have no expectation of privacy in their use of the employer’s computer systems and equipment.

But many employers feel electronic surveillance creates the wrong environment. So, another option for employers is to implement and enforce productivity standards and relevant policies, like limitations on the use of personal devices during working time. It is important that such policies should be applied consistently across all levels of the workforce in order to avoid any discrimination claims.

Attendance. Relatedly and unsurprisingly, there often is a spike in attendance issues in connection with major sporting events. Employees may miss work during the World Cup to watch games – or recover from celebrations (i.e. “hangover leave”). The proliferation of local and state sick leave laws is a complicating factor, since almost all of them prohibit employers from seeking verification for the use of sick leave if an employee calls out sick for fewer than two or three days. Sadly, the reality is that many employees may abuse these leave laws by calling out sick for non-sick reasons, such as the World Cup. But employers should continue to enforce their attendance and call-in policies consistently. And if an employer discovers that an employee has lied about the need for sick leave, it may discipline the employee for the dishonesty.

Cybersecurity. As we previously discussed in the context of March Madness, sports betting has boomed, with a significant majority of states having some form of legal sports betting. Some employees may access sports-betting or viewing sites through the employer’s computer systems, and potentially expose the systems to malware. Thus, employers may wish to consider implementing a policy that prohibits the use of company computer systems and equipment for all or certain personal activity, such as gambling or sports viewing. The policy should also state that the employer may monitor employees’ computer usage, and as mentioned above, that employees should have no expectation of privacy in their use of company systems and equipment. But, again, it is important that employers be consistent in enforcing such policies.  In addition, employers may block gambling and other inappropriate websites so that employees cannot access them on company systems.

Gambling in the Workplace. Speaking of gambling, some employees might be interested in an office bracket pool. Such pools may actually be illegal under certain states’ regulations if not carefully structured, while federal laws prohibit betting across state lines – although realistically, the chance of enforcement by either federal or state authorities is pretty low (employers gambling on this?). Generally, in order to keep the workplace’s bracket pool from the reach of state gambling laws, commentators recommend that all money that comes in as a part of the pool goes to the winner, so the pool is more of a “contest” of skill in analyzing and predicting winners, rather than a form of gambling, where the bettor bets against the house.

But as we previously noted, again in the context of March Madness, such pools can be a source of tension in the office. Some employees might not wish to participate in a pool–they may have a religious objection to gambling, have a gambling addiction, lack the money to participate, or just don’t like to gamble. Those employees may feel either excluded or pressured to join in. Employees may also be poor losers or winners, fostering ill feelings. Finally, having large amounts of cash floating around the workplace is certainly cause for concern.

Dress Code and Civility Policies. As with the Super Bowl or March Madness, if your employees are in-person at the workplace, there may be dress code and social interaction concerns. Employees may wish to wear team jerseys, t-shirts or hats to show their support for their teams. Most employers will consider relaxing dress codes to permit team wear. But there may be safety or health issues involving the use of machinery (manufacturing) or hygiene (like healthcare or food service). Employers should consider and then clearly communicate what is considered acceptable for the workplace.

In addition, people may feel deeply and passionately about their teams. This level of passion can be problematic in the workplace. Employers can certainly ensure that employees do not engage in disruptive conduct or speech, and that they treat co-workers and visitors with respect and courtesy. Again, such requirements must be applied consistently.

But What About Employee Morale? On the flip side of all these concerns and prohibitions, employers may wish to use the World Cup to build employee morale, such as by hosting watch parties for the U.S. team games. Another option is to allow some scheduling flexibility to allow employees to watch games of particular interest to them – but make sure to extend such flexibility equitably in order to avoid discrimination claims. Employers may also sponsor a voluntary “no-cash” pool open to all (this is totally legal), with a small-stakes reward, such as a gift card or a free lunch.

And now – Go U.S.A!!!

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