Unauthorised absence is when someone does not come into work and gives no reason for their absence, or makes no contact with their employer.
Other terms can include:
‘AWOL’ or absent without leave
absent without permission
There are many reasons why an employee doesn’t turn up for work, ranging from a simple travel issue, to being too ill to get in contact. It can also take the form of an isolated absence for a good reason, e.g., to care for a dependant in the event of an emergency, or, it could be a persistent pattern of unauthorised absences. The length of the absence and reasons for the absence should determine how an employer deals with the issue.
In normal circumstances, employees will be aware of how to report absence, such as through the company’s internal policies on sickness and absence, or them finding some other way of notifying their employer that they can’t come into work that day. If this has failed to happen, it is best to fully investigate the situation and hear the employee’s explanation, before reverting to any disciplinary action, or an assumption that the employee has resigned.
Having a plan for ‘AWOL’ scenarios
Having in place an Emergency Absence procedure can help and form part of induction processes for new employees, as employers can provide a designated contact in the event of an emergency.
Line Managers may wish to provide their mobile number for example, so that a call or text can be sent and then absence can then be reported in the normal way, once the emergency is dealt with. However, employees will need to be made aware this method of reporting absence is purely for emergency situations and does not replace the formal reporting procedure in the company’s sickness and absence policy or employee handbook – N.B. I’ve lost count of the line managers who’ve mentioned their frustration when direct reports text them at some point in the day to explain they won’t be attending work and this can become commonplace if the rules around sickness and absence reporting are not properly communicated – Karen Scott, FCIPD, Director, Specialist HR Solutions Ltd.
Trying to make contact
Try to contact the absent employee as soon as possible – including using any emergency contact details they have provided, should there be a concern over the employee’s safety. Considering the circumstances, will help employers determine when approaching emergency contacts is an appropriate step to take.
There are no rules as to how many times an employer should attempt to contact an employee who is absent without permission or ‘AWOL’. However, it’s unlikely an Employment Tribunal would consider it a reasonable response for an employer to have left a message for an absent employee and then, having heard nothing, to have sent a letter to the employee confirming termination of employment. It’s important to act reasonably and this includes making a concerted effort to contact the employee a number of times, using different methods of communication and keeping a record of the attempts made.
If contact cannot be made with an employee who has ‘gone AWOL’
If contact cannot be made at the time of the unauthorised absence, the employer should discuss the absence with the employee when (and if) they do return to work.
However, if no contact has been possible, further to trying all the usual methods of communication such as by phone, email and letter, then temporary arrangements may need to be made to ensure business can continue as normal along with preparations for what happens next.
It’s important that employers act in a fair, consistent and non-discriminatory way when dealing with instances of unauthorised absence, or employees ‘going AWOL’ and failure to do so could lead to risk of liability in the event of an unfair dismissal and / or unlawful discrimination claim. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the case will ultimately determine the appropriate level of action for an employer to take e.g., an employee who takes one day of unauthorised absence for a good reason would not be treated in the same way as an employee who has a prolonged period of absence without proper reason, or who repeatedly fails to return their employer’s attempts to get in contact.
Where attempts to make contact have been unsuccessful, write to the employee, sending a copy also by email. It’s a good idea for employers to send correspondence by recorded delivery to ensure they can track whether their letter has been received.
The letter needs to:
Show concern for the employee’s wellbeing
Explain the impact their disappearance is having on your business
Ask them to get in touch, to discuss what’s happened and what they plan to do
Be specific about how they should contact you and by what date
Communicate that unauthorised absence can be considered misconduct and could lead to disciplinary action
When all else fails, take disciplinary action
Assuming you’ve investigated the reasons for absence and there are not health, welfare, or personal reasons that would lead you to take a more lenient line, disciplinary action for unauthorised absence is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate response.
It is crucial employers follow the ACAS code for disciplinary and grievance procedures, along with the businesses own in-house policies when taking formal action against an employee, making sure the employee has the opportunity to:
be represented by a colleague or trade union official
put forward their defence and any mitigating circumstances.
Depending on to what extent the employee was clear about how unacceptable their absence was, and, taking into account the circumstances surrounding the absence and length or instances of absence, taking unauthorised leave could be construed as gross misconduct.
Whatever happens, employers should keep an audit trail of events. Should this become a disciplinary issue further down the line, employers need to be able to show they took reasonable and numerous attempts to reach their ‘AWOL’ employee.
Consider and investigate the facts before initiating formal disciplinary action against an employee who takes unauthorised absence or ‘goes AWOL’;
Be fair, consistent and reasonable at all times;
Consider the individual – is this new or regular behaviour, and act accordingly;
Check the employment contract to ensure you follow your own guidelines on disciplinary procedures;
Keep a written log of all contact or attempts to contact – including what was said, by whom and when;
Document the genuine impacts on business – e.g. if a client has been negatively affected as a direct result of the unauthorised absence;
Be sure to follow the ACAS code for disciplinary and grievance procedures and your own in-house company procedures and policies.
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