Queen Elizabeth II national mourning: Five HR issues

As we enter the period of national mourning since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, how should employers deal with practical issues such as short-notice holiday requests or time off to pay respects?

The Government has today published guidance as to how mourners can pay their final respects to Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen's coffin is currently situated in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, and is due to be flown to RAF Northolt on Tuesday, after which it will travel to Buckingham Palace.

On Wednesday 14 September, the coffin will be taken from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, and official "lying in state" will begin from 5pm. This allows members of the public to pay their respects and the hall will remain open 24 hours a day until 6.30am on Monday 19 September, the day of the state funeral, which is now confirmed a bank holiday.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners are expected to visit London to view the body and have been warned to expect long queues and airport style security and restrictions.

The Rail Delivery Group has cautioned that services to and stations in the capital will be "extremely busy" over the lying in state period and advises mourners to leave plenty of time for travel.

Members of the public may also want to watch the ceremonial procession ahead of the lying in state, when the coffin travels from Buckingham Palace to Westminster on Wednesday afternoon.

During this period of national mourning, employers may come up against a number of questions or issues from staff around taking time off, flexible arrangements to visit central London to view the Queen's coffin, or who will work if businesses remain open.

1. Increased demand during national mourning

Some businesses, particularly those in central London, are likely to face increased demand as visitors descend on the capital, creating potential difficulties for staff supply.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says: "London is expected to be particularly busy over the next week, placing extra demands on hotels, hospitality venues, security staff, emergency services and public transport. Similarly, other organisations, such as florists and memorabilia manufacturers, will see an increase in demand. Employers in these areas may have to consider putting a temporary freeze on staff taking annual leave."

Palmer adds that employers in this situation could consider cancelling pre-booked annual leave, as long as they give the employee the same amount of notice as the duration of the leave. "I would suggest doing this only as a very last resort as it can have a negative impact on morale and motivation," she adds.

"To keep up with increased customer demand, you may choose to offer enhanced overtime rates or incentives to work additional hours. However, it's important to be mindful of the limits on maximum working hours and minimum rest breaks."

Lee Ashwood, employment director at Freeths LLP, says a good first step is to ask for volunteers to work that day. "If you are left having to choose who will work, be careful not to fall into stereotypical thinking and, instead, use objective criteria," he says.

"Rather than assuming someone won't really mind working on the day of the Queen's funeral because of, say, their age or the nationality, use time-keeping records, appraisal scores or disciplinary records as a method of choosing who will be rostered to work."

2. Short-notice time off issues

Kate Hodson, partner and head of employment at SAS Daniels LLP, points out that businesses may well see an increase in employees trying to book last-minute annual leave.

"This should be handled compassionately, but still within the confines of normal working practices to ensure that businesses have cover," she says. "Every request should be considered on its own merits, based on the individual's circumstances and role within the business.

"This is also the case for any requests for last minute leave or requests for flexibility around working hours to view the Queen lying in state, visit churches and lay flowers."

Ashwood echoes this advice: "Requests at short notice for time-off or a change of working hours should be dealt with sympathetically.

"Being able to reject them legally and so coldly is all well and good but employers should not lose sight that for some the Queen's passing has been an emotional time and a show of empathy is likely to be very well received."

3. Travel issues during national mourning

Between Wednesday 14 September and Monday 19 September, London-based employees may have concerns about how they travel to work if rail services are overcrowded. This may mean increased travel times or potential delays.

Palmer suggests employers cut staff some slack if this is the case. "The disruption should only last this week, so it's reasonable for employers to make adjustments during this time," she says.

"Understandably, employees may have genuine concerns over commuting across the capital during such an unprecedented and high-profile event. Be sure to listen to employee concerns and put adjustments in place during this time.

Being flexible around start and finish times over this period is a potential option, and employers could also consider whether employees who cannot make it into work are able to work from home temporarily.

She adds: "If not, then discuss the alternative options of taking annual or unpaid leave. Do bear in mind that this is an historic event on a scale most of us have never experienced before, so a level of flexibility and understanding on both sides is paramount."

4. Employee emotions and philosophical beliefs

The period around the monarch's death will be a time of heightened emotion for many employees, and it's crucial for employers to recognise that this could be a difficult time for some.

"There have been genuine and profound reactions, which have taken some by surprise. Be prepared for heightened emotions and reduced concentration at work," advises Palmer from Peninsula.

But it's also important to note that not every employee is a fan of the royal family. "While everyone is entitled to their opinion, it is worth remembering the acceptable standards of workplace behaviour," she adds. "Creating a culture of inclusion and diversity means ensuring employees respect the differing opinions of their colleagues and interact with each other accordingly."

Employers should also be mindful of any potential discrimination issues that could arise when granting flexible arrangements or leave to some employees and not others.

If managers offer special arrangements to employees who express strong support for the monarchy, for example, could there be repercussions? Most law experts agree the chance of a discrimination claim is remote.

"It is possible that someone's belief in the monarchy could be strong enough to be considered a philosophical belief, enabling them to claim that refusing to allow them time off was an act of discrimination, however this is highly unlikely," says Hodson from SAS Daniels.

Barry Stanton, partner and head of employment at Boyes Turner, says the greater risk would be to employee morale: "For those who do not wish to grant time off, the prospect of a discrimination claim on the grounds of religion or philosophical belief seems, in the vast majority of cases, to be somewhat remote. The more damaging issue will be that employees whose requests are not accommodated may decide to find a new job."

5. National mourning HR issues: Deciding whether to close

"While there is no obligation for organisations to close, employers must remember this is a once-in-a-lifetime event," says Marcus Beaver, UK & Ireland lead at Alight Solutions.

"Employees all over the country may want to recognise and be a part of this monumental moment in British history and celebrate the Queen's life in their own way."

On a practical level, employers might also want to consider whether they show the funeral in their workplace if the business does remain open.

"If your business will remain open on the day of the Queen's funeral, there will be no mandatory requirement to show the funeral in the workplace," she adds.

"However, I would advise that employers seriously consider the magnitude and historical importance of the event and be prepared for employees wanting to watch it. Communal viewing areas may help staff feel supported and united but, remember, not everyone will wish to partake so don't make it mandatory."