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Don’t sweat the summer holidays!

26 July 2013

With soaring temperatures, a British champion at Wimbledon and other sporting events in full swing, the country is in a holiday mood! But with the economy still in recovery, businesses need to keep their workforces motivated.

Here we examine some of the HR issues that employers often face during the holiday season.

Managing holiday requests

Employers will inevitably notice an increase in last-minute holiday requests to coincide with good weather and sporting events. Whilst you are free to agree to such requests, it is worth remembering that employees cannot insist on taking holiday at a particular time. All the Working Time Regulations require is that employees be allowed to take at least 5.6 weeks’ paid leave per year.

Employers should make it clear to staff that all holiday requests will be dealt with in line with the business’s usual holiday policy, which will generally be designed to ensure that the business can accommodate the absence.

Should parents be given priority during school holidays?

The process for granting annual leave is left to the discretion of the employer but giving priority to parents during school holidays could lead to claims of indirect discrimination, for example by older employees whose children are no longer of school age.  It is arguable that the ban on term-time holidays recently adopted by schools could go some way in helping employers to justify any such discriminatory practice, but the inherent risk of such claims remains, together with the cost of defending them. There may also be other employees who are equally ‘deserving’ of a break, e.g. carers, ex-pat employees etc. so we would advise employers not to make any assumptions about their staff and instead operate a fair and transparent system for booking holidays.

Employers may be asked by parents to be allowed to work reduced or flexible hours during the school holidays. Such requests need to be considered carefully to minimise the risk of a claim for sex discrimination or breach of the flexible working regulations. If you do decide to grant the request, or if a compromise is reached, the changes should be documented in a letter to the employee, with a clear statement that the changes are temporary and that there is no guarantee that future requests of a similar nature will be granted.

High levels of absenteeism

Employers often find that levels of sickness absence rise sharply on days that are particularly sunny or on which key sporting events take place, such as Wimbledon and the Ashes. Effective monitoring of patterns in sickness absence and the implementation of a sickness reporting system can help minimise this disruption. For example, by introducing a return to work interview and by requesting doctors’ notes for all sickness absences that fall at the end of a pre-booked holiday.

Where an employee genuinely becomes unfit for work prior to or during a period of annual leave they must, under the Working Time Regulations, be allowed to reschedule their holiday for a later date.

However, where an employer has good reason to suspect that an employee was not genuinely sick, they can instigate disciplinary action. Employees are often caught out by comments or photographs on their Facebook page that, unsurprisingly, colleagues covering their work do not find very amusing.

A proactive approach

Many employers choose to take a proactive approach to major sporting events or heat waves by allowing flexible working for that period, subject to business needs. The rationale behind this approach is that by using the opportunity to create goodwill with staff, this will boost morale, reduce unauthorised absenteeism and thus maintain overall productivity. Clearly the extent to which this is practical will depend on the nature of the business, but even buying a round of ice-creams for your staff during a heat wave will have a positive effect on morale!

Workplace temperatures

As mercury levels rise, some employees may try to argue that the workplace has exceeded lawful temperatures. In fact, health and safety legislation simply states that the temperature must be “reasonable”. The Health and Safety Executive suggests that this is likely to be between 13°C and 30°C, but this is only guidance.

That said, employers should consider what can be done to alleviate the effects of the high temperatures, both for the comfort of employees and to maintain productivity. For example, ensure that there is a constant supply of cold drinking water and temporarily relax the dress code. This is particularly important for any employee who suffers from a medical condition that may be aggravated by the warm weather (particularly where that condition may amount to a disability).

For more information on employment matters please speak to our employment law team.

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Matthew Clayton MA LLM (Cantab), CIPP/E
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Mathew Clayton
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