It’s unusual, but occasionally you might find yourself in the situation of having to deal with an employee who has effectively gone AWOL, absent without official leave, in other words hasn’t turned up for work, or has left work, with no reason given and no explanation.
So if this happens what should you do? Here are our key steps to dealing with unexplained absence of this nature.
1. Consider the circumstances
The reasons for the absence may make a big difference in terms of how you handle it. Ask yourself the following questions and take the answers into account when deciding on an appropriate course of action.
What is the employee’s general attendance record like?
Are you aware of any personal problems, difficulties at home, or health problems?
Have there been any disagreements or disputes involving the employee in the workplace recently?
Is there any reason to believe they might be being bullied at work?
Is there anything particularly stressful or difficult happening at work at the moment?
Does the absence coincide with dates that were refused for holiday or other leave?
2. Get in touch
Obviously you will try and get hold of your employee when they don’t turn up, usually by ringing their mobile phone. We’d recommend ringing rather than texting or emailing in the first instance. Give all the numbers you have for the employee a try and make sure you record any and all attempts made to contact them, and leave messages if the opportunity arises rather than hanging up when there is no answer.
The next step would be to use any emergency contact details you have for the employee, or any relatives or friends you are able to reach. You will need to consider the circumstances in order to ascertain when is an appropriate time to do this.
For example if you refused a requested day off and the employee doesn’t turn up on that day, you may decide that the most likely scenario is that the employee has taken the leave anyway, and getting in touch with emergency contacts might be unnecessary. On the other hand if you are aware of personal or health problems or have any reason to be immediately concerned about the employee, you might want to start ringing emergency contacts straightaway.
On the second day you should try contact on all available avenues again, and if you don’t manage to make contact you may want to consider writing formally to the employee ensuring they are clear about the consequences of continued failure to make contact and setting a deadline for doing so.
The tone of this letter will depend very much on the circumstances, and whether you have any reason to be concerned about the employee’s welfare. Frequently, attempts to make contact including getting in touch with relatives or friends do elicit some kind of information about possibilities to give you a bit of guidance in this area. If relatives are very concerned for your employee’s wellbeing or have an idea where they are, that will help you decide whether a letter is appropriate and what tone it should take.
If contact with others elicits some evidence that the employee is genuinely missing, rather than just not turning up for work, you may wish to contact the police. Police are not usually immediately concerned if a healthy adult decides to go off somewhere, but logging your concern is no bad thing if you feel in the circumstances it is appropriate.
3. Don’t assume the employee has resigned
This is a common approach by an employer; to communicate to the missing employee that by not turning up to work they are deemed to have resigned. Of course it may be that they do in fact have no intention of returning to work at all, and therefore have for all intents and purposes resigned, but withdrawal of labour would not under normal circumstances be considered by a tribunal as being sufficient to constitute a resignation, as an express intention to resign needs to be have been communicated.
Assuming resignation would therefore usually be construed by a tribunal as a dismissal, so bearing this in mind, you should take the appropriate steps for a dismissal rather than assuming a resignation. The employee’s actions can certainly be taken as a breach of contract, and provided you can demonstrate that you’ve made reasonable attempts to make contact, have made clear to the employee the consequences of their actions, and invited them to a disciplinary hearing to put forward an explanation, a dismissal is likely to be considered a reasonable response.
4. Investigate when the employee does return to work
Obviously in circumstances where the employee hasn’t actually gone missing, but has just taken a day or days unauthorised leave, but then returned to work, you need to consider how to deal with them on their return. Unauthorised absence is potentially a serious disciplinary issue, but it may depend on the circumstances. When the employee returns to work, interview them and request an explanation. Depending on what the explanation is, you may feel that further support is appropriate, or that disciplinary action is the correct response.
5. 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.
If you would like any further advice on an employee going AWOL, do get in touch.