Dawn Robertson: Till death (or employees' rights to time off) us do part

ON FRIDAY 29 April next year Prince William, second in line to the throne, and Catherine Middleton will be married amid great pomp and ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

As Wills and Kate begin life as husband and wife, Scotland's company directors should try to ensure that the wedding is not followed by an acrimonious divorce from some of their staff.

Historically, one imagines that a one-off public holiday to celebrate the marriage of an heir to the throne was simply declared by "royal proclamation". Now it is the responsibility of our political leaders who, in coming to a decision no doubt try to balance the inevitable loss of productivity with the "feel good factor" that such a holiday engenders among the population - and an associated boost in productivity in the long run.

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With our First Minister having followed the lead of David Cameron in confirming that 29 April is to be a public holiday in Scotland, no doubt the masses of public sector employees who hold back-office job functions - important, perhaps, but not deadline-sensitive - can look forward to a relaxing day at home, watching events unfold on television.

Unfortunately, not all private sector employers will be in a position to afford to offer such a concession - no matter what Mr Salmond decrees. Many companies, especially in the SME sector, will have no alternative but to make 29 April just another working day. The example of a family-run firm holding a clothing contract with a major high street retailer springs to mind.

For them the royal wedding could be especially problematic precisely because it is such a special case. Christmas comes around every year, which is why most companies that need production to continue during the festive season have procedures in place that balance employee and workplace needs.

While there are people prepared to work over Christmas in return for more money or enhanced time off at some later date, some may be less willing in the case of the royal wedding. Some employees may be determined to try to exercise their "right" to a public holiday, which means management need to be extremely circumspect in their policy towards time off.

It is often argued that the pendulum of employment legislation has, during the past decade, swung too far in favour of employees, enabling unscrupulous workers to use the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law to obtain compensation for which they are morally not entitled. This may be correct but in many instances the hire-and-fire environment - particularly outside the public sector - has moved in the other direction. Many people are now engaged on contracts rather than as fully fledged members of staff. Working hours are often ambiguous and, in some cases exploitative, sometimes on the dubious grounds of "flexibility".As for holidays, there was a time when an employee's right to certain days off - for example Christmas and Boxing Day, New Year's Day, Easter Monday - was enshrined in their contract of employment. Workers still have a right to statutory public holidays but the actual timing of these is determined by the employer. Therefore, no employee - or very few of them - will have a "right" to take 29 April off.

Nevertheless, employers need to address this issue well in advance. Where a decision is taken to stay open for business on the 29th, employers are well advised to make it clear, in writing, that time off on the day of the royal wedding is not automatic - employees will, of course, be entitled to use a day's annual leave if they wish. If not, then any employee subsequently dismissed for staying away from work could successfully argue a case of unfair dismissal.

Another reason for a proactive, rather than reactive, approach is more abstract, but nonetheless important. If the precedent of Charles and Diana is any guide, the marriage of William and Kate is likely to be a sensational - and sensationalist - affair. Any subsequent employment tribunal may lead to unwelcome newspaper headlines about mean bosses sacking loyal workers simply because they wanted to watch what will no doubt be described as "the wedding of the decade". Bosses should be fully prepared - as much for the sake of their image as their production schedules.

• Dawn Robertson is an employment law partner at Murray Beith Murray, based in Edinburgh