2012 Olympics volunteers: overview

Ailsa Murdoch and Lois Perkins of Lewis Silkin begin a series of articles on employers' obligations in relation to employees who volunteer for the London 2012 Olympics with an overview. Employees who wish to be 2012 Olympics volunteers will need to make a commitment that is likely to impact on their employer. Employers need to decide how they will deal with requests for time off by Olympics volunteers. 


The countdown for the London 2012 Olympics is on. Following its winning bid, the UK will host the Olympic Games from 27 July to 12 August 2012 and the Paralympic Games from 29 August to 9 September 2012. Events will take place in the Olympic Park, across London and at out of London venues such as Windsor, Coventry, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff.

The Games will be supported by volunteers (referred to as "Games Makers"), who will work in a range of generalist and specialist roles (see the Games Maker page of the London 2012 website). The Games' organisers have received over 240,000 applications to join the volunteer programme and, over the coming months, they will carry out selection events to appoint 70,000 Games Makers. Those offered a role will commit to at least three training sessions prior to the Games and at least 10 volunteer days during the Games.

This level of commitment is likely to have a significant knock-on effect on organisations that employ would-be volunteers. Employers may have to deal with a number of issues arising from the volunteer programme, over the coming months.

Time off for selection events

Volunteer selection events will comprise 90-minute sessions in eight towns and cities across the UK. Selection events should take place by February 2012. Applicants will get between three and five weeks' notice of their selection event and will have a range of dates and times from which to choose, which will include evenings and weekends. Employers need to consider how they will deal with requests for time off to attend selection events.

Given the potential flexibility around dates and times, employers may decide to request that employees attend their selection event outside working hours. Where this is not possible, employees may need time off during working hours. Employees have no statutory right to time off. Therefore, employers need to make a policy decision on how they will approach requests. Employers could:

  • require employees to take annual leave;
  • depending on the nature of their role, allow employees to make up the time taken at a later date; or
  • allow employees to take special leave (either paid or unpaid).

Where time off will be taken as anything other than annual leave, it is reasonable for an employer to request evidence of the employee's invitation to attend the selection event.

Time off for training and voluntary work

If selected to be a Games Maker, a volunteer will be required to take part in at least three training sessions and will volunteer for at least 10 days during the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games, or for a minimum of 20 days if he or she volunteers for both Games. Volunteers will get at least three to five weeks' notice of their training sessions and will be able to select from a range of dates and times, including evenings and weekends. After training, they should be notified of their voluntary-days roster in April 2012. Again, employers will need to decide how they will deal with requests for time off to attend training and voluntary days.

Given the potential flexibility around dates and times for training sessions employers may take a similar approach as with selection events and request that employees try to attend their training outside working hours.

Where this is not possible, and for the days of volunteering itself, employees are likely to need time off during working hours. Again, there is no statutory right to time off for the purpose of volunteering. It would be reasonable for an employer to require its employees either to take annual leave or to make up time lost if it grants flexible working. Some employers may decide to grant paid or unpaid special leave. Alternatively, employers could agree to a combination of all options. In general, it will be good practice for an employer to be as supportive of requests for time off as possible, whatever form the time off takes. Employee morale will be boosted, new skills may be acquired and the employer will benefit from the good publicity generated.

Again, it would be reasonable for an employer to request evidence of an employee's appointment as a Games Maker volunteer where time off is taken as anything other than annual leave.

Annual leave

Employers can decide whether or not to accept annual leave requests, in accordance with their normal policy and dependent on business needs.

Employees should make requests for annual leave to volunteer in accordance with contractual requirements. If there is no provision in the contract, the Working Time Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/1833) require an employee to submit his or her leave request at least twice as many days ahead of the holiday as the length of the holiday itself. For example, a request for 10 days' leave to volunteer would have to be submitted at least 20 days before the employee wishes the leave to commence. In practice, employers may want to have special arrangements in place that encourage employees to submit holiday requests well in advance of the Games, and by a particular deadline, so that they can consider all requests fairly, taking into account business need. If an employee submits a request later than the suggested deadline, but in accordance with the Regulations, the employer should still consider the request, but is likely to have good grounds for declining it if all other holiday requests have been submitted and considered at an earlier stage.

Flexible working

Employers may consider a flexible working arrangement to enable employees to volunteer at the Games. This could be an attractive option for employers and employees where the nature of the employee's role and his or her volunteering responsibilities make this a viable option. Arrangements could include: changes to working hours or days, part-time working, job sharing, flexitime and/or homeworking. Given that volunteer duties as a reason for requesting flexible working do not come within a statutory framework (unlike the right to request flexible working arrangements due to caring responsibilities or for training), the procedure for dealing with a request would be a matter for the employer to decide and the terms if a request is granted would be freely agreed between the employer and employee.

Paid or unpaid special leave

Employers may choose to grant special leave, which could be unpaid or partially or completely paid, or give employees the opportunity to take annual leave and special leave to cover the required amount of leave to volunteer. Many employers will already have policies in place that allow for special leave for voluntary work, or they may decide to allow special leave for the Olympic Games as a "one-off" event. An allocated number of days' special leave could be offered, with employees using their annual leave to make up the difference. Alternatively, employers could offer special leave on a "like for like" basis (for example, if the employee takes five days' annual leave, the employer will match this with five days' special leave). It would be sensible for employers to specify a maximum number of days that they will offer on this basis and that the total number of days' annual and special leave that an employee takes should not exceed the number of days that the employee is required to volunteer. Special leave could be paid or unpaid, depending on the resources of the employer and its willingness to support the volunteer programme.

Potential problems

Competing requests for leave: If employers are concerned that they may receive competing requests for time off to volunteer for the Games, they should, ideally, inform employees of the approach that they intend to take to time off requests at an early stage, implement a fair and transparent process and apply it consistently. This will manage employees' expectations and reduce the likelihood of potential issues arising when employees make requests. A good starting point is for employers to introduce a policy for requesting leave to volunteer for the Games (or revise an existing volunteer policy) and set out the basis on which requests will be dealt. (See Policy on staff volunteering for the Olympic Games in the XpertHR policies and documents section for a model policy.) An employer that applies a fair and consistent policy will be less likely to face claims of unfair or discriminatory treatment if it grants one employee's request and refuses another's. Employers could either deal with requests on a "first come, first served" basis or specify a date by which employees must submit all requests for leave (along with evidence of their volunteer position) and then make a decision. As volunteers will be informed of their training sessions and volunteer dates at different times, this approach would seem fairer to those who are informed at a later date.

The decision concerning which requests to grant is likely to be based on a number of factors, for example the amount of leave requested and already taken in that leave year and business requirements, which may vary depending on the department and the roles concerned. Employers should be wary of making decisions that could lead to allegations of discrimination (for example, by awarding leave on the basis of length of service, which could result in an allegation of indirect age discrimination).

Refusing annual leave: An employer can turn down a request for annual leave by responding to the employee's notice to take leave with a counter notice that refuses the request. The employer should give at least the same number of days' counter notice as the length of the leave requested (for example, a counter notice refusing 10 days' annual leave must be given to the employee at least 10 days before the leave is due to commence). Although there is no requirement to give an explanation for the refusal, it is best practice to do so, giving legitimate business reasons and making clear that the decision has been made in good faith.

Unauthorised absence: Some employees may fail to turn up for work despite the fact that their employer has refused a request for annual leave. Unless there is a good reason for the absence, it will constitute an unauthorised absence and the employer will be entitled to invoke its disciplinary procedure.

Next week's topic of the week article will be a case study around London 2012 Olympics volunteers and will be published on 13 June.

Ailsa Murdoch (Ailsa.Murdoch@lewissilkin.com) is a senior associate and Lois Perkins (lois.perkins@lewissilkin.com) is a legal assistant in the Employment, Reward and Immigration Department at Lewis Silkin.

Further information on Lewis Silkin LLP can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com.