How should businesses deal with employees' day-off requests during FIFA World Cup?

Canada's first appearance in decades expected to spike fan enthusiasm, while games' start times in B.C. range from 7 to 11 a.m.

Canada's first FIFA World Cup appearance in 36 years is spurring unprecedented fan interest - and will likely lead to some day-off requests from employees. | Red Card Sports Bar + Eatery

With Canada set to kick off its first appearance in the FIFA World Cup in multiple decades, Canadian businesses may see more workers taking days off during game dates.

That’s because high levels of fan enthusiasm for Canada’s first World Cup entry since 1986 – a team led by rising superstars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David – are combining with the fact that the games, held in Qatar, are scheduled to start anywhere from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Vancouver time.

It means it is not unreasonable – or even likely – that some fans (or even managers) will try to take a day off work to cheer on the team, observers in both the sports and HR industries said.

“There’s an ownership of this team more than we’ve ever had before with people in this country,” said Blake Price, co-host of Vancouver’s Sekeres & Price sports talk show and TSN play-by-play voice of Whitecaps FC games, who has seen first-hand the amount of enthusiasm that has been building around the team as it streaked through CONCACAF qualifying over the last two years.

“The fans in Eastern Canada really have it a little better – the games are all happening around lunch time for them so they can find an excuse to maybe get out of work early. But even here, the games are during daylight hours, so you are not asking people to wake up at 2 a.m. like you do with the Olympics in Asia, for instance. So this [World Cup] is eminently consumable for Canadian fans – and I think there’s definitely an excuse to break some norms in your schedule... and it’s only three days.”

In response to questions of anticipated crowds at local establishments, Vancouver’s Red Card Sports Bar + Eatery said in a statement that the restaurant will be open on Canadian game days at 8 a.m. with breakfast menu service – with the bar also making use of the recently made-available early liquor licence by starting sales of alcohol starting at 9 a.m.

While no official attendance number has been released, fans who are interested in watching at a bar are asked to plan early because big crowds are more likely than not, Red Card said in its statement.

“Due to high-demand, we recommend booking in advance,” the statement said. “If you're unable to make a reservation online, please call us.”

Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory manager at Toronto- and Vancouver-based HR consultancy Peninsula Canada, said business managers should fully expect higher demand for off days than usually during Canada’s three scheduled matches. But that does not mean an employer is completely without recourse if they want to ensure certain levels of productivity during that time.

“Canadian fans have a huge reason to celebrate as Canada prepares for its first World Cup in 36 years,” Shukullari noted. “With that being said, employers should have a plan in place to ensure productivity remains high during the tournament, especially when many of the soccer matches fall during the workday.”

He said that companies do have the right to decline day-off requests if a manager/owner wants to ensure a business’s needs are met. As most employers grant day-off requests on a first-come, first served basis, the same approach should be taken if an employer needs to determine priority of who to approve and who to deny.

Shukullari also noted that – which other major sporting events constantly happening on an annual basis – it is prudent for an employer to create a specific “sporting-event policy” to make sure there are no surprises or unfounded expectations of days-off during future events. A set policy would also create a clear, transparent framework to discipline those who do not comply, he said.

On top of all this, Shukullari said the best way to prevent too many people from being away during game days may be the old mantra of: “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

“There are a few things employers can do to keep soccer fans in the office happy while ensuring work is being done,” he said. “Decorate the office; embracing World Cup 2022 can be a fun initiative at work as a way of team building and increasing engagement amongst employees. One way to do this is by placing all team flags around the office.

“And if the nature of your business allows, you can let staff watch matches on screens across the office. Allowing some flexibility when it comes to following matches, rather than banning it altogether, may help boost morale, maintain productivity levels, and manage the number of employees who request time off to watch the match.”

Price suspects that many managers who may be as big Team Canada fans as their employees may be more than amenable to those options.

“I mean, it’s history,” he said, noting that most sport prognosticators believe that 2022 may be the start of a long run of international soccer success never before seen in Canada – with the team again guaranteed to participate in 2026 because of the games being hosted in North America (including several games at BC Place in Vancouver).

“I think most employers even will probably be encouraging some level of fandom, whether it’s a big screen in the office or what-have-you. I think people are going to lean into this a lot over the next few weeks.