Whether you call it skiving, pulling a sickie, or bunking off, taking unauthorised absence from work isn’t funny. It may be jokingly discussed by colleagues in the pub, but it’s a serious matter that isn’t taken lightly by most companies and can result in disciplinary action being taken. It can even be grounds for dismissal.
Most people recognise the strain that unauthorised absence from work puts on colleagues who have to make up the shortfall on behalf of the missing worker and some even regard it as akin to theft. Whatever your own personal view, your company should make provision in its employment contracts and handbook for absence management and how to deal with unauthorised absence.
What is unauthorised absence?
Unauthorised absence is failing to turn up for work without good reason. It does not include: where an employee has booked annual leave in advance; genuine sickness that has been properly notified; absence due to maternity/paternity leave; and absence due to a statutory right, such as leave to search for work when made redundant, or time off for antenatal care and appointments.
With unauthorised absence, there can either be no reason given at all, whether before, on the day or after or there can be an absence where you don’t believe the excuse that has been given.
Absence management good practice
There are a number of policies and procedures that you can put in place to help with absence management and with deterring employees from taking unauthorised time off in the first place.
Firstly, plainly state in your employment contracts what constitutes unauthorised absence, how you will deal with it and what the consequences are for unauthorised absence.
Absence and sickness reporting
Record and measure absence and sickness. Whether you do this manually or automate it via an IT system, you can use it in retrospect to pick out any patterns of absence, such as someone who might have “Monday morning syndrome”. You can also use a sickness management software to trigger actions when an unauthorised absence is recorded.
Return to work interviews
Holding interviews with an employee when they return to work can help employee relations in a number of ways. Not only can you enquire after the employee’s wellbeing and bring them up to speed with any company news they may have missed, but you can also determine the reasons for the absence. Moreover, holding such interviews can discourage employees from taking bogus days off if they think they might be quizzed about their absence once they return.
Steps to handle unauthorised absence from work
How you deal with unauthorised absence may depend on the length of time taken off and how – or if - the employee has tried to justify it. For example, you may deal differently with someone who has taken a single day off than you would with someone who has been off for a prolonged period. But, regardless of that, you need to remain fair and consistent in your handling of unauthorised absences and different managers need to take the same approach with all staff to ensure consistency across the company.
In the first instance, you should make reasonable efforts to contact the employee to determine the reason for the absence. Lack of contact from a usually reliable staff member may indicate that there is some sort of problem and that this isn’t a wilful unauthorised absence from work.
You can phone their home and mobile numbers, email and text them. If you are unable to make contact, then you may also try an emergency contact, if you have details on file.
If there is still no contact, you should write a letter explaining that there has been an unauthorised absence and asking for an explanation. You can request that the staff member gets in touch within a certain time period, noting that if this does not happen, you will consider or instigate disciplinary action. You should send the letter by a method that requires a signature, so that you have proof of delivery. This, and all other attempts to contact the employee should be recorded as a matter of good HR practice.
Upon the employee’s return to work, meet and discuss the reasons for the absence. There may be a good reason for the absence after all, which perhaps the employee felt unable to discuss at the time. This could be a delicate medical issue, a personal or family problem, or a problem with a work colleague due to harassment or bullying. In such circumstances, the leave – although unauthorised – might be seen to be acceptable and steps can be taken to help the employee properly report absence in the future. The company can also address the issues or advise the employee how to raise a formal grievance.
Unauthorised absence from work is not typically classed as a gross misconduct offence. Employment experts usually recommend that it should be handled with a succession of warnings, which, if ignored, results in the employee attending a disciplinary hearing, which may result in them being dismissed with notice.
If you are still without an adequate explanation as to the absence, or if your staff member has failed to show up for work after some days, or if your previous disciplinary warnings have gone unheeded, then you can hold a disciplinary hearing. Make sure to follow your company’s procedures for holding this hearing.
You can hold this in the absence of the staff member, as long as you have given them reasonable notice of the hearing and are certain that they have received this. Explain that the absence was unauthorised and why that is so. If you believe that the employee’s continued unauthorised absence constitutes gross misconduct, then you may dismiss them for that. Write to them with the outcome of the disciplinary hearing and advise them that they may appeal the decision and how they can do this.
Absence management is an important part of the human resources role. Properly undertaken, and with strong policies in place, you can protect your company against the detrimental aspects of unauthorised absence. You’ll reduce business disruption, prevent negative sentiment and low morale in the other staff, and reduce the costs that are associated with unauthorised absence.