Dealing with unauthorised absence from work

    unauthorised absence


    While most instances of employee absence will be for legitimate reasons, there may be times when an employee simply fails to show for work or to make contact with their employer without a reasonable excuse. Unauthorised absence can quickly become problematic if not handled correctly and consistently.

    In this guide, we look at how to deal with unauthorised absences as part of an effective approach to absence management.

    What is unauthorised absence?

    Unauthorised absence is when an employee doesn’t come to work and they have neither sought their employer’s permission nor followed the company policy to notify of their absence.

    You may have also heard the terms AWOL (Absent Without Leave) or absent without permission. These are also used to refer to unauthorised absence.

    Employees have a statutory right to take annual leave and to time off work if sick. Approved annual leave, bereavement leave, parental leave, an approved appointment or a reported sickness,  do not constitute an unauthorised absence. These circumstances rarely raise issues when the employer is given sufficient notice and the employee has followed the company’s relevant procedure.

    Employees also have statutory rights that grant them time off from work. For example, if they have been made redundant, they are entitled to time off to search for new work.

    But when an employee fails to come to work without prior approval form their employer, and they have not informed their employer of their absence, this would be considered unauthorised.

    Often, unauthorised absences occur due to a lack of communication and misunderstanding. For example, an employee left an email in draft requesting time off that never made it to the recipient, or their laptop crashed as they were putting the request through Cascade.

    Nonetheless, situations do arise in which unauthorised absences must result in disciplining the employee.

    Sometimes, albeit rarely, employees just don’t come to work without giving a reasonable reason. Often the employee requested the time off, but it was refused due to business needs, or something has come up last minute, and they have not communicated a reason for not coming in.

    It goes without saying that it’s important to deal with unauthorised absences on a case-by-case basis.

    What does the law say about unauthorised absences?

    Most authorised absences are statutory rights, so the employee has a legal right to them. On the other hand, unauthorised absences can constitute misconduct and could lead to disciplinary action.

    An unauthorised absence on its own would not usually be sufficient to justify dismissing an employee, but this would depend on the facts. When an employee is off on an unauthorised basis, despite a previous warning, this could be classed as insubordination, which can act as grounds for dismissal.

    An employment tribunal would look at each case of unauthorised absence individually. It would often consider the employee’s past attendance and whether this was the first offence.

    When is absence is authorised?

    Having an understanding of the type of absence that is authorised helps to get a fuller picture of the issue of unauthorised absences. The following kinds of leave won’t be treated as unauthorised:

    • Approved annual leave
    • Reported sick leave
    • Compassionate leave
    • Family-related leave
    • Agreed paid leave
    • Jury service
    • Public duties
    • Career breaks

    The company would give authorisation for each of the above kinds of leave. You also have a duty as an employer to ensure employees are granted this leave in accordance with the legal rights or company policy.

    As an example, employees are entitled to two days of bereavement leave by law — many employees may grant more in their bereavement policy — but the employee is always entitled to the minimum.

    How to deal with unauthorised absence

    To ensure consistency and fair treatment of all employees, it is advisable to have a procedure in place for when an employee fails to come to work.

    Give a reasonable amount of time before you contact the employee. The employee may be running late, or stuck in traffic or have other travel-related problems. Allow a reasonable amount of time to call into work to report a sickness (i.e. until 9:30 am is standard).

    Make a genuine attempt to get in touch with the employee. You will need to ensure you have up-to-date contact information for all your employees. If you’re not able to make contact, keep reaching out throughout the day. While you shouldn’t harass them, make sure you try to check in every couple of hours. Employers have a duty of care toward their employees and should always try to make contact to ensure their employees’ safety.

    Make sure to note down the attempts you made to contact them, including the time and method you used to try to get in touch. This will help you if you have to follow through with a disciplinary procedure.

    When the employee comes back to work, have a formal meeting with them and give them a chance to explain their absence. At this stage, you can determine if disciplinary action is required in line with company policy. For example, suppose the employee has a perfect attendance record but took one day of unauthorised absence. If they present a reasonable excuse for their conduct, you may decide a verbal warning is appropriate rather than a full disciplinary process.

    If a full day has passed and the employee failed to come to work the following day and failed to make contact with you, you should still try to contact the employee.

    At this stage, you may be concerned that the employee’s well-being is at risk, so it may be appropriate to contact their emergency contact, or even to try to visit the employee, especially if they live on their own.

    Can unauthorised absence lead to disciplinary action?

    Most instances of an authorised absence are due to miscommunication or error and may just result in a warning, but unauthorised absence is a disciplinary offence. You should ensure that it is included in your employee handbook as an example of a disciplinary offence. Including it in the handbook and taking steps to ensure all employees are aware will serve as a warning to employees and provide consistency among the workforce.

    Depending on the facts, the employer may initiate a disciplinary procedure to deal with the matter. this would involve a disciplinary investigation to establish the facts, and a hearing when the employee can put their side of the matter forward.

    You should also remind the employee of their rights at this stage; they have the right to bring a trade union representative or a colleague to the hearing, to provide their own representations, as well as the right to appeal the decision of the hearing.

    If an employee fails to attend the hearing, it should be rescheduled, and the employee should be given the opportunity to attend once more. However, you do not have to give the employee a third chance. The letter can state that if the employee does not attend the rescheduled meeting, it will go ahead without them and the decision will be made without their representations being made.

    You should send the details of the new meeting in the same way the first correspondence was sent out.

    Treat each case on an individual basis and on its own facts. Not all instances where an employee has failed to come to work are clear cases of unauthorised absence. The employee could have had a medical emergency or a sudden family bereavement, and there could have been no reasonable way for them to contact their employer to inform them.

    It could also be a genuine mistake or an error in communication regarding working times or shift patterns.

    Therefore, while it’s important for consistent practices to take place, not all cases of unauthorised absences will result in disciplinary action or even a warning.

    How to avoid unauthorised absences

    The best way to avoid unauthorised absences from work is to ensure employees are well aware of the correct procedure for requesting time off. Normally, this is a simple process of requesting time off from their manager and then inputting it into the company’s intranet.

    Ensure clear employee sick leave policies and procedures
    Sickness is the most common reason for employees requesting last-minute time off. As an employer, you must grant this time off. Each business will have its own policy, but legally, employees are entitled to 10 paid days of sick leave each year.

    It’s advisable to include the following in your sick leave policy:

    • Who do the employees contact when they’re sick?
    • When they should inform their manager they’re sick (eg. at the latest by 9:30 am on the day they need to take off).
    • A rough idea of when they will return to work (however, this is just for reference, and you shouldn’t hold employees to this date).
    • Situations in which they need to provide evidence, such as a doctor’s note.

    Make employees aware of the consequences of unauthorised absences. There may be certain situations in which you can foresee a possible instance of an authorised absence. For example, during the summer, many employees will request time off to enjoy the hot weather or take a holiday for a needed break.

    Inevitably, some of these days might overlap, and you can’t grant everyone the holidays they’ve requested. It’s important to be aware that you have the right to decline an annual leave request, thanks to the Working Time Regulations 1998. However, you do have to provide a valid reason.

    You may also cancel someone’s annual leave, again, with a valid reason. For instance, you may already have many people off; work is busy, and perhaps someone has called with a sick line for one week. This means you have to cancel an employee’s upcoming annual leave. You do have to give a “counter-notice” for this, at least one week if they have booked a full week off.

    It’s also a good idea to give this notice with an apologetic letter and provide some other time they can take the leave. You might also want to grant an extra day’s holiday to make up for the inconvenience, but this isn’t required.

    Of course, this situation may give rise to the employee taking time off anyway, resulting in an authorised absence.

    In this case, you should try to give the at-risk employee a little reminder or a warning of the consequences of taking an unauthorised absence. You should make reference to your company policy regarding the issue.

    If you have given the employee sufficient warning, it gives you a stronger case if you decide to dismiss them. Since the employee has taken time off despite a warning and without permission, it could be a case of insubordination, which is often treated as a more serious offence.

    Can you dismiss someone for unauthorised absence?

    Unauthorised absence is a form of misconduct, not gross misconduct, so you wouldn’t normally have sufficient grounds to dismiss someone who has failed to come into work once. If the employee has served two years’ service with you, they may bring a claim of unfair dismissal against you.

    However, repeated unauthorised absences can certainly amount to gross misconduct. They may repeatedly leave you short-staffed without notice and can negatively affect the business.

    Ensure you have recorded every case of unauthorised absences for the employee before you dismiss them and have evidence of providing them with several warnings about the behaviour.

    The above-mentioned instance of an employee taking an unauthorised absence when their request has been refused could be a case of insubordination, which would give grounds for dismissal or a more serious disciplinary consequence in some cases.

    Unauthorised absence FAQs

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    Legal disclaimer

    The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


    Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

    Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing & Content Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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