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 used can include:
‘AWOL’ or absent without leave
absent without permission
There are many reasons why an employee may not turn up for work, ranging from a simple issue with travel, to being too ill to get in contact. It can also take the form of an isolated absence for a good reason, for example, 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 the 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 and by (say) calling their line manager or HR, or finding some other way of notifying their employer that they cannot 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’ situations
Having in place an Emergency Absence procedure can help and can form part of induction processes to give each new employee 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 aware that 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.
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, should 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 is unlikely that an Employment Tribunal would consider it a reasonable response for an employer to have for example, 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 is important therefore, 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’. 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. For example, an employee who takes one day of unauthorised absence for a good reason would not normally be treated in the same way as an employee who has a prolonged period of absence without proper reason and / or who repeatedly fails to return their employer’s attempts to contact them.
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;
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 your own company procedures and policies and the terms within the employment contract throughout any formal process
Whatever happens, jot down what you’ve said, and when you said it. Further down the line – if this becomes a disciplinary issue – you’ll need to show how you took sensible steps to reach your employee.
It’s time to put pen to paper
If you’re still not getting any joy, send a letter by post – and perhaps by email too – if you have their personal email address details. Some employers choose to send the letter by recorded delivery to stand a better chance of it being seen.
In the letter you should:
Show your concern for their wellbeing
Explain the impact their disappearance is having on your business
Ask them to get in touch, to discuss what’s going on and what they plan to do
Get specific about how they should contact you and when by
Point out that an unauthorised absence is misconduct and could lead to disciplinary action
Begin disciplinary action
If you’ve heard nothing, it’s time to kick-off disciplinary action. Send another letter, inviting them to a disciplinary hearing. Give them enough notice to attend, make sure it’s at a place they can get to, and say they can bring somebody with them if they like. For example, a colleague or union rep.
A ‘hearing’ is a fancy word for a meeting where you:
Explain what your employee has done wrong
Present the evidence to back-up your complaint
Allow your member of staff to say what’s happened from their perspective
Stick to these massively important guiding principles
You should know by now that all people problems need to be handled with kid gloves. To protect yourself and your business, you should:
Be totally fair and reasonable at all times
Really think about the person you’re dealing with. Is this new or normal behaviour?
Keep a written log of all contact – including what was said, who by, and when
Jot down the genuine impacts on your business. For example, having to let a customer down
Be driven by what’s written in your employee contracts and handbooks to make sure you’re following your own disciplinary policies
Take disciplinary action
Assuming you investigate reasons for the absence, and there are not welfare/health or personal reasons for the absence which lead you to take a more lenient line, disciplinary action for unauthorised absence is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate response. Follow your disciplinary procedure as usual, making sure the employee has the opportunity to be represented by a colleague or trade union official, and to put forward a defence or mitigating circumstances.
Depending on to what extent the employee was clear about how unacceptable their absence was, on the circumstances surrounding the absence and on the length of the absence, taking unauthorised leave could be a gross misconduct offence.
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