How to manage unauthorised absence at work

A quick summary:

  1. What is unauthorised absence?
  2. Can I dismiss an employee for unauthorised absence?
  3. Do you still get paid for unauthorised absences?
  4. Is it a gross misconduct to be absent without notice?
  5. What disciplinary procedures should I use?
  6. How to deal with unauthorised absence
  7. Other considerations
  8. Our final thoughts on unauthorised absence

We all require time away from work now and then. That’s normal. But it becomes a concern when these instances are labelled ‘unauthorised absence’. As a manager, how should you navigate the murky waters of unauthorised absences?

In this guide to unauthorised absence at work, we’ll uncover definitions, answer frequently asked questions and show you how to deal with this issue. This one-stop manager guide will offer everything you need to deal with attendance concerns.

unauthorised absence definition

What does unauthorised absence mean?

Put simply, unauthorised absence happens when an employee doesn’t report for work, unexpectedly. Typically, employees won’t notify their employer and will take leave that hasn’t been approved.

There are some common reasons for unauthorised absence at work that you should be made aware of as a manager:

  • To attend job interviews
  • A lack of remaining holiday allowance
  • Poor health and wellbeing
  • Low morale and motivation
  • Dissatisfied with projects and tasks

Of course, this list is very short. It’s really hard to pinpoint reasons for unauthorised absence at work without speaking with employees. You may find that life just got on top of them, and they had a lot going on.

And although that isn’t may not be an acceptable reason not to show up, we as managers, must think of all possibilities and address them differently.
To summarise, here’s what you should know:

  • It happens when employees do not report for work without notice
  • There are a million reasons for employee unauthorised absence
  • As leaders, we must navigate carefully and consider all possibilities

Can I dismiss an employee for unauthorised absence?

In short, yes, employees can be dismissed for unauthorised absence. This should, however, be a last resort. If employees consistently don’t show up for work, without reason, managers should take clear disciplinary action.

Your employees should also be made of the disciplinary route and reminded of each step of the process. Why? Because although dismissal is fair, it will be a setback for your organisation.

Losing employees, for whatever reason, poses a threat to company growth, your bottom line and more. Instead, see dismissal for unauthorised absence as an end result. But to answer this question, it is possible to fire an employee for not showing up.

Similar read: Demystifying absenteeism and presenteeism

Do you still get paid for unauthorised absences?

Most employers will not pay for unauthorised absence at work. The purpose of an annual holiday allowance is to provide unpaid leave. However, this really depends on a case-by-case basis; or more so, an employer-by-employer basis.

The general consensus is that people aren’t entitled to pay if they are absent without good reason. If you’re a manager, refer to your HR department for info on pay when it comes to unauthorised absence.

Our advice on the matter of pay during unauthorised absence is to not offer pay. In our opinion this may encourage employees to remain absent from work, knowing they can expect to be paid either way.

a stressed employee staring at her laptop

Is unauthorised absence from work gross misconduct?

Unauthorised absence isn’t usually regarded as gross misconduct, as this is reserved for occurrences where an employee is dismissible. Instead, it’s more of a standard misconduct.

It would not be a clever decision to fire an employee after an instance of unauthorised absence. Why? Because most likely there is a reason. Especially if it’s unusual for an employee not to show up.

It’s a succession of not shows that should determine whether unauthorised absence becomes a ‘gross misconduct’. Of course, companies make their own policies. If it’s decided that one instance of unauthorised absence is gross misconduct, there’s not much that can be done.

But our advice to you, as a manager, is to steer clear of referring to unauthorised absence as gross misconduct. Develop a policy, a set procedure that all managers and employees can adhere to. Warnings should discourage these absences.

What disciplinary procedures should I use?

As we’ve covered, it’s important you understand why unauthorised absence is happening within your company. You shouldn’t make any major decisions or disciplinary actions until then.

This is because you may come to realise that the reason for unauthorised absence was due to a family emergency of some sort. This kind of circumstance highlights why it’s important to take each case of unauthorised absence individually.

However, if you’re aware of why unauthorised absence at work is happening, here are some disciplinary measures to consider:

  1. Create a formal warning structure, i.e three strikes.
  2. Send out a letter to an employee highlighting this issue
  3. Host a one-to-one to discuss ways to combat unauthorised absence
  4. Highlight the impact on the business and why further action may be necessary
  5. Full dismissal from a position

Of course, you may want to incorporate more or less from this list, or entirely reinvent it. Whatever you see fit, having a solid disciplinary procedure ensures everyone knows what’s expected of them.

an empty desk due to unauthorised absence
How to combat unauthorised absence as a manager

How to deal with unauthorised absence

In these points below, we’re going to explore the various ways to navigate employee unauthorised absence as a manager. Using these tips, you’ll know exactly what to do should certain employees begin disappearing from their desks.

Prioritise the wellbeing of employees

First and foremost, prioritise the wellbeing of your people. It’s not unusual for employees to step away from their careers in turbulent times. For example, they may be dealing with poor mental health or an unexpected illness.

Instead of pointing the finger, always try to think of the many possibilities why an employee may not show. However, the more frequent their absence becomes, the more concerned you should be.

Try to give employees a friendly phone call or text message to ensure they are all OK, to begin with. Remember, you don’t want to ruin any workplace relationships you have due to misjudgement.

We always recommend you lead your investigation of unauthorised absence with an open mind and compassionate attitude. This will help you tenfold when dealing with these issues.

Here are a few prompts for conversations with employees who are absent:

  • “Is everything okay?”
  • “Is there any way I can support you and help you return to work?”
  • “Are there any concerns you have or problems you’re facing at work?”

As you can see, these initial prompts do not interrogate. In fact, they offer support, and a helping hand to employees.

Make your policies clear to the workforce

Policies and guidelines are put in place to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Whether it’s for mental health support or your work-from-home policy, they outline the rules and expectations of the employer.

You should have one for unauthorised absence at work too. That way, you can prevent people from overstepping the mark. For instance, without a formal disciplinary procedure or outline of what’s right and wrong, employees may continuously mess up.

You might find that certain managers just don’t know how to deal with unauthorised absence because they’re never been informed by a policy or senior leader. Try to streamline the procedure so that everyone from managers to team members knows.

Some things to consider in your policy:

  • How many absences are acceptable without disciplinary action?
  • How should managers approach matters of unauthorised absence?
  • After which point can managers dismiss employees?
  • What support can we offer absent employees?

A woman feeling unwell at home
Stay supportive of your team members

Remain supportive despite unauthorised absence

Going full circle back to the importance of prioritising wellbeing, we recommend you always remain supportive. As we touched on above, it’s never quite clear why unauthorised absence at work is happening — but that doesn’t mean we should be judgemental or shun employees.

Instead, always try to stay positive, remain supportive and work on solutions to bring employees into work again. As a manager, you will receive much more respect from employees by navigating cases of unauthorised absence like this.

If you anticipate that employees are unhappy at work, find out why (remain supportive). If you believe employees are discontent with the culture, and their relationship with other employees, find out (stay supportive).

It’s very easy to side with our misjudgement and point the finger at people for their wrongdoings. It’s harder to remain supportive and help people overcome challenges they’re facing — especially if it is causing you great stress as a manager!

Maintain communication with absent employees

When dealing with unauthorised absence, try to maintain communication with such employees. This acts as a reminder of your expectation as an employer and how they may be letting you down.

That’s not to say you should actively guilt-trip them, but gently remind them where they should be and ask why they’re not present. If you’re dealing with a series of unauthorised absences from employees, try to check in on them and ensure everything’s OK. This could just be a quick email or phone call.  

Ultimately, staying in contact with employees who are absent — for whatever reason — provides you with a means to bring them back into the workplace.

an unused envelope with a pencil
Letters of warning for unauthorised absence

Send formal letters of warning to employees

One way to combat unauthorised absence is to develop a series of warning letters. These are then sent to an employee’s home. It’s a form of communication that’s designed to highlight why it’s critical they return to work.

These don't necessarily need to use threatening language either. It can simply remind them that without their support, they are struggling to complete X, Y & Z. Every employee fulfils a need within the company, so highlight this to your absent team members.

Of course, the more warning letters sent, the more likely the issue is going to escalate to a decision of dismissal. Whilst you shouldn’t be too harsh in your letters, it’s important to be realistic about the consequences employees can expect.

With your final letter of warning, let employees know that an authorised absence of this length is likely to result in dismissal if nothing improves. This might finally convince your team member to return to their position. From there, action must be taken to address why this happened for so long.

Other considerations for dealing with unauthorised absence in the workplace

Below, we’ve listed a few more ideas to consider as a manager dealing with unauthorised absence. It’s important to think outside of the box and come up with your own ideas too.

  • Make notes to remind yourself of conversations around unauthorised absence
  • Involve other colleagues in supporting their team members returning to work
  • Don’t take things personally

A female employee unhappy at home

Our final thoughts on unauthorised absence

There you have it! Our full breakdown of how to manage unauthorised absence in the workplace, as a manager. Hopefully, you can see by now that this issue can be resolved, and done so without losing top talent.

There are various techniques and approaches to unauthorised absence that we’ve examined in detail in this post. But if we had to leave you with our best piece of advice, it’s to always remain supportive and take employee wellbeing seriously.

The reasons behind unauthorised absence at work are very important. People are only human, and if they are struggling in their personal lives it can sometimes seep into their careers, i.e through unauthorised absence.

This makes your job, as a manager, more about supporting people through unauthorised absence, as opposed to disciplining employees or threatening them. The best leaders will already be taking this approach, and the toxic ones, well I’m sure you can guess how they deal with absence in the workplace.

The fact is, you’ve made it this far in our guide to unauthorised absence which tells us all we need to know about the kind of leader you are for your team. How are you managing unauthorised absence in the workplace?

Last but not least, we couldn’t wrap things up without mentioning the turbulent times that everyone has been through in recent years. Not only has the world been hit with a global pandemic, but also a cost of living crisis.

Times are hard, and they don’t appear to be improving right now. As workplace burnout continues, anxiety levels heighten and society remains on the brink of a mental health crisis, unauthorised absence must be dealt with effectively.

Understanding the ordeal that life has thrown at people lately is a great way to combat a judgemental or biased mindset as a manager. Not only when dealing with unauthorised absence but when it comes to people management and workplace wellbeing in general.

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