Help, my employee is AWOL!

It is way past their start time and you’ve still not seen or heard from your employee. What should you do?

For many managers, initial thoughts are likely to be of concern for the employee’s welfare and naturally, the first step is to try and contact them. But what happens if you can’t get hold of them? What if they’d previously requested this day as annual leave, had it declined, but were now off anyway? What rights do you have as an employer to manage this sort of behaviour?

It may come as no surprise that most employers frown upon unauthorised absences, which can result in disciplinary action or could even be considered as grounds for dismissal. 

Generally, most employees recognise the additional stress and pressure that their  unauthorised absences place on their colleagues as they have to pick up the additional workload.

What is unauthorised absence?

Unauthorised absence is when an employee doesn’t turn up for work as expected and has not provided a reason for their absence. 

Examples of authorised absences: 

  • the employee has booked annual leave in advance; 
  • properly notified genuine sickness; 
  • maternity/paternity leave as well as time off for antenatal care and appointments 
  • a statutory right, such as leave to search for work when made redundant. 

Absence management good practice

The first step in managing unauthorised absence is to take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. The way to achieve this is by clearly communicating your expectations of how employees should request leave and report their absences in your company policies.  

  • Sickness Absence Policy and Holiday Policy; these policies should provide clear guidelines on how you expect staff to report their sickness, including how they should get in touch and by when. The holiday policy should advise employees on the procedure for requesting time off as holiday, and how these requests must be approved for the leave to be taken.
  • Disciplinary Policy; Unauthorised absence should be included in your disciplinary policy and is often listed under the scope of Gross Misconduct. Employees should be made aware that unauthorised absence is unacceptable and could lead to disciplinary action. 

Try to contact the employee

If you’ve not heard from an employee within the time frame specified in your policy, and they’re not on authorised leave, it’s appropriate for you to try to contact them. Try phoning and emailing, and if you fail to reach them within a few hours and you continue to be concerned, you can try to reach their emergency contact, so it’s important to keep your records up to date too.

Keep notes

Keep an accurate record of your attempts to contact the employee, including times of calls and any voicemails left.

Send a letter encouraging contact and invite to a disciplinary meeting

If you’re unable to contact your employee after two days and are unable to speak with their emergency contact, the next step is to send them a letter for unauthorised absence (AWOL Letter). This letter should be inviting them to attend a disciplinary meeting. Bear in mind you will need to provide 48 hours’ notice of the meeting.

Hold a disciplinary meeting

If they fail to attend this meeting, it’s recommended to invite them to a second, rescheduled meeting. This invite should notify them that if they fail to attend, the meeting is likely to go ahead, and a decision may be made in their absence.

If the employee does attend the disciplinary meeting and is able to provide a good reason for the unauthorised absence, you should reiterate the process for reporting absences, inform them that a file note will be added to their employee record and if there are further instances of taking unauthorised absence then you may consider further formal action.

Investigate the unauthorised absence

If the employee returns to work, there are some key questions you need the answers to, when conducting your investigation don’t forget to ask them:

  • Why they were absent?
  • Why did they not call in to notify the company of their absence?

If they can provide good reasons to these questions, and this isn’t a regular occurrence, reiterate your policy and inform them that they must notify you of future absences. Explain that repeatedly failing to do so could lead to disciplinary action.

Even if you’re sceptical of their explanation, unless you can categorically prove that it is untrue, for example, if an employee posts about what a great time they had that day on Facebook, or was seen out by another employee, you should still accept the explanation. Without solid evidence to prove otherwise, you must avoid making any assumptions (no matter how hard it is!). However, if there is a clear pattern emerging, you may want to highlight this during the investigation before progressing to disciplinary action.

However, if an employee goes ‘AWOL’ for whatever reason, a clear and well communicated process for absences can reduce confusion, stress and help employers manage their employees absences better. 

If your business has an issue with absences and you need a helping hand, contact me and see how I can help you email me directly;

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