Unauthorised holiday, what can you do?

Dec 23, 2020 | Time Off Work

While most employers (and certainly most of our small business clients) try to agree employee holiday requests where at all possible, inevitably there are times where it is simply not possible to grant requested annual leave dates.

Obviously most responsible, committed employees would understand the reasons for refusal, and would make other arrangements or choose other convenient dates for their time off. But you may find yourself in a situation where an employee doesn’t turn up for work on dates you’ve refused to allow as holiday. Given there are certain to have been good reasons for turning the request down in the first place, this is likely to be hugely inconvenient for the business and for the employee’s colleagues. But how should you handle it?

First how to avoid it

To minimise the chances of ending up in this situation there are a number of things you can do:

  • When refusing a request, make sure you do so as soon as possible after receiving the request (and at least the same length of time as the duration of the requested holiday) so that the employee has plenty of time to make other arrangements
  • Make clear any restrictions on holiday booking and arrangements for sharing out annual leave at busy or popular times.
  • Make it clear that staff should not book flights or holidays without having a request for annual leave agreed
  • Only refuse holiday requests for good business reasons
  • If you have reason to believe the employee might go on holiday anyway, raise your concerns with them and remind them of the possible consequences, including deductions from pay and disciplinary proceedings. Ensure you keep a record of the conversation.

If they don’t turn up and haven’t rung in sick

As with any unauthorised absence, you should make every effort to get in touch with your employee and establish his or her whereabouts. It is entirely possible that the unauthorised absence on refused holiday dates is coincidental so try to keep an open mind while you do this.

If you manage to contact them, how they explain their absence will determine your next steps. If they claim to be unfit for work, remind them of their responsibility to follow the sickness absence reporting procedures and to provide a self-certificate or doctors fit note to explain their absence.

If they do not claim to be unfit for work, and have no reasonable explanation for their absence, you should insist they return to work and make clear to them that unauthorised absence with no reasonable explanation is a disciplinary matter.

Realistically though, if your member of staff has gone on holiday without authorisation, and has not chosen to ring in sick, they are unlikely to respond to attempts to make contact, especially if they are abroad. If you can’t get hold of them, you will need to write a letter requesting an explanation for the absence, requiring an immediate return to work and confirming that unauthorised absence is a disciplinary matter.

When they return to work, you need to meet with them to discuss their absence and the reasons given for it. You may well then feel a disciplinary process is appropriate, assuming no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, and you should ensure you follow your disciplinary procedure properly. In terms of a sanction, you need to be fair and consistent (not that this is the type of thing you probably encounter often!), and bear in mind the employee’s previous record, and their actions this time when deciding on an appropriate level of warning.

For example if it was one day holiday, didn’t represent a huge inconvenience and was for an important family event, you may decide to be less harsh than if the employee has swanned off for a fortnight in Magaluf at your busiest time despite having had their request turned down months ago…

What if they rang in sick?

If your staff member rings in sick on a day you had refused a holiday request, naturally you will be suspicious, but what can you actually do? You should remind your employee of your sickness absence procedures including the requirement for a self-certificate or doctors fit note, but realistically, as an employee can self-certify for the first week, if their absence is no longer than that, this requirement should present very little difficulty for them.

Of course the sickness may be genuine and the timing purely coincidental, and you should try to keep an open mind (or at least be seen to be keeping an open mind!) before leaping to conclusions and planning disciplinary action.

When they get back from their absence after having rung in sick, assuming they have complied with the sickness absence reporting procedure and have provided self-certification or a fit note, it will realistically be very difficult for you to do anything. If the absence is less than a week, no doctor will have needed to be involved and no medical “proof” available.

Although you could require a medical report from the employee’s GP or from an Occupational Health provider, this is unlikely to be worthwhile for a very short absence for a “tummy bug” or similar. Ultimately, unless you have other compelling evidence that they were not in fact sick at all, you may find you are not in a position to take any disciplinary action.

What about pay?

Well, there is no entitlement to pay for unauthorised absence, so if your employee is not claiming illness for the period they were off, you do not need to pay them. Just make sure you have given them plenty of opportunity to provide a reasonable explanation for their absence during the disciplinary procedure you will no doubt be going through on their return.

If the employee is not entitled to any company sick pay, only SSP, then they will not be paid for the first three days anyway, and will then be entitled to SSP provided they follow the appropriate procedure and provide the appropriate fit note.

If your organisation offers any guaranteed enhanced sick pay for a set number of days and the employee has followed the required procedure, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to pay the employee even though you are certain (as far as you can be) that they were not off sick, but just cannot prove it. This is obviously incredibly irritating, however obviously any goodwill your employee may have earned will have disintegrated and they will know their attendance record is likely to be highly scrutinised in future!


If you need any information about unauthorised holiday, do get in touch.