Speak to an Adviser 0330 175 6601

Unauthorised Absence from Work: An Expert Guide

Unauthorised absence refers to a situation where an individual fails to come to work without providing a reason or notifying their employer. It is also commonly referred to as ‘AWOL’ (Absent Without Leave) or ‘Absent Without Permission.’

Read on to learn more about the types of absence that fall under this category and how to follow disciplinary action and an unauthorised absence procedure.

When is Absence Authorised?

Absences can be authorised in a wide variety of situations including:

  • Annual leave
  • Sick leave
  • Compassionate leave
  • Jury service
  • Family-related leave
  • Unpaid leave
  • Career breaks
  • Public duties

For these types of leave, authorisation from the company would be granted in advance of the leave being taken. For emergency situations or in the event of a sudden bereavement, leave can be granted on the day the leave is necessary. An absence that is unauthorised is simply an absence that has not been approved by the employer. All of this information should be stipulated in your business’s absence policy.

Dealing with Unauthorised Absences

If one of your employees or team members does not show up for work and has no absence authorised, you must follow your company’s absence procedure. This will begin by making multiple attempts to contact the employee.

It is worth noting, however, that some circumstances that cause an unauthorised absence may justify a softer, more lenient approach. For example, if the employee has been involved in an accident or if a bereavement has come out of the blue. Before coming down hard with the company’s rules, the manager or team leader will need to back a compassionate assessment depending on the individual case. But, if there is no appropriate reasoning for their absence disciplinary action will need to be followed.

When an Employee is Struggling with Attendance

Sometimes an employer may have questions about a team member’s attendance if they are regularly late or seem to be taking an excessive amount of sick leave. When these concerns come hand-in-hand with cases of unauthorised access or difficulties performing and meeting daily expectations, formal action may be considered. 

It is recommended to have additional HR systems in place to help identify these potential problems before they come to a head. For example, ‘trigger points’ are normally in place when sick leave is used too regularly. ‘Return to Work’ interviews after periods of sickness can help monitor and assess the genuine nature of their absence while supporting their return to work.

For more advice, download our Absence Management guide here.

Following an Unauthorised Absence Procedure

If your employee takes AWOL, make sure you follow your company’s unauthorised absence procedure. These often include the following actions over the first and second days of absence.

First Day of Absence

When an employee fails to attend work without having permission to be off work, reasonable attempts to contact the employee should be made. Some managers feel it is not their job to contact employees and feel that it is up to the employee to make contact, however, employers have a duty of care to their employees and should ensure contact is made or attempted as accidents on the way to the workplace can happen.

Attempts of contact should be made periodically throughout the day, contact can include phone calls to home or mobile numbers, emails, or text messages.

A record should be made of any attempts to contact an employee, including date, time, method of contact and who made the contact.

If contact with an employee cannot be made and employers have an emergency contact detail for the employee on record, the emergency contact should be contacted and explained to them that the employee has not attended work or made contact and ask if they could make contact and ask the employee to get in touch.

As well as making contact via phone call, text or email, it is good practice to write to the employee expressing concern regarding their absence, stating that their absence is unauthorised and requesting they contact you as soon as possible. This letter is known as a letter of concern and can be sent out by post and/or email. It is a good idea in this letter to state when the employee must make contact by and also inform the employee if no contact is made then they could be requested to attend a disciplinary hearing.

If an employee makes contact later in the day or returns to work the following day, they will be required to explain their absence and provide reasons for their absence, an employer then needs to decide whether to proceed with disciplinary action at this stage.

Second Day of Absence

If an employee fails to attend for a second consecutive day, contact with the employee should be started again. If it is known that an employee lives on their own, a home visit may be appropriate to check on their well-being.

If no contact or information is received about the absence by the end of the second day, it would be reasonable to invite the employee to a disciplinary hearing to answer the allegation of their unauthorised absence. In the invitation letter, full details of the absence should be provided along with information regarding contact attempts by the employer. Sufficient notice must be allowed for this meeting.

The letter should be sent out with recorded delivery and a copy also be sent via email if the employee has provided an email address to the employer, this will minimise the risk of the employee claiming they did not receive a letter.

Disciplinary Action

Unauthorised absence is a disciplinary offence, it is classed as misconduct. Usually, this would be listed in a disciplinary policy as an example of misconduct under a non-exhaustive list. By having a specific offence listed in a disciplinary policy, it provides fair warning to employees of what will happen to them if they commit such an offence and helps to enable consistency across the workplace.

Unauthorised absence should be dealt with by a series of warnings which could ultimately end up with dismissal with notice. A straight dismissal for an unauthorised absence would be risky, if an employee has two or more years of service, they might be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal against the employer.

However, some cases of unauthorised absence could be classed as gross misconduct, for example, if an employee has been refused holiday for certain dates, but takes the time off anyway. This would be an unauthorised absence but could also be deemed as insubordination and could justify a more serious disciplinary sanction.

Employers need to consider each situation of unauthorised absence on an individual basis, employees will often have an excuse for failure to attend work. This can be confusion on their shift patterns or workdays which normally would not be an excusable reason, however, the sudden death of a family member or being involved in a serious accident would normally be sufficient to justify the absence.

Disciplinary Hearings

The disciplinary hearing should be conducted in line with the company’s normal disciplinary procedure.

If the employee fails to attend the disciplinary hearing and there has been no contact from the employee or any information received, the meeting should be rescheduled, and the employee allowed one more opportunity to attend.

The letter of invitation sent to the employee should be sent again by recorded delivery and to their email address if they have one. The letter should also state that it is a rescheduled disciplinary and if the employee fails to attend or make contact with the company then this will result in the hearing being held in the employee’s absence and a decision will be made in their absence.

If a disciplinary sanction is issued to the employee, then the employee must be given the right to appeal in line with the disciplinary policy.

An employee has the statutory right to be accompanied at any disciplinary hearing by either a colleague or a trade union representative.

If you would like further guidance on unauthorised absences or any other HR topic please contact Clover HR on 0121 516 0299 or email us at info@cloverhr.co.uk


What are the consequences of unauthorised absences?

An employee who has a history of unauthorised absences may receive a written warning that outlines potential severe disciplinary action if the behaviour persists. The ultimate disciplinary measure that an employer could take is the termination of employment.

Can employment be dismissed due to an unauthorised absence?

Yes, an employee can be fired for misconduct, including consistent tardiness or unauthorised absence from work. To ensure a fair dismissal, the employer should schedule a meeting with the employee and explain the reason for the dismissal.

Mastering Work-Life Balance: A Strategic Guide for SMEs in the UK

Mastering Work-Life Balance: A Strategic Guide for SMEs in the UK

Achieving Harmony: The Art of Work-Life Balance in Modern SMEs In an era where the line between professional commitments and personal life is increasingly blurred, mastering the art of work-life balance has never been more vital. For SMEs across the UK, understanding...

Navigating HR Compliance: Essential Guide for UK SMEs in 2024

Navigating HR Compliance: Essential Guide for UK SMEs in 2024

How An HR Consultancy Keeps You Compliant In the UK, modern laws, regulations and standards are designed to protect employees from unfair treatment by ensuring balanced and equitable workplace practices. For SMEs, understanding these laws and implementing policies and...