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Absence Monitoring: How to Handle Too Many Unexplained Absences 

5 min read
Manager reviewing absence policy to address the employee's absence.

Employee attendance is the bare minimum when it comes to employer expectations. Poor attendance can lead to disruptions and hampered productivity, especially when the absences are repeatedly unexplained and unplanned for.

Compared to authorised absence, unexplained absence can often be even more challenging to manage. These types of absences can result in increased workloads for other team members and lowered morale. Research shows that problems with other team members’ performance and attendance are among the top ten causes of workplace stress. Managing unauthorised absence can therefore become a logistical nightmare for team leaders.

In this article, we explore how to address unauthorised absence and why it’s vital to follow a fair process at each step, even when your patience may be wearing thin.

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What is an Unexplained Absence?

An unexplained absence refers to an employee’s failure to report to work or fulfil their work contracted duties without providing a valid reason, giving reasonable notice or obtaining authorisation. Unexplained absences are also commonly known as unauthorised absences, unplanned absences, being absent without leave (AWOL), or absent without permission.

Absence Management Strategies

So your employee has gone AWOL. After the initial frustration of having to redistribute workload, employers often hesitate when it comes to the first steps following an unauthorised absence. Here are three steps to follow if your employee fails to report for work:

  1. Check Company Policies

When faced with an employee who is absent without leave, the first step is to review your organisation’s policies and procedures, such as absence management and disciplinary. Reviewing the policies will give you a framework for how you manage the unauthorised absence.

  1. Try to Establish Contact

The employer’s duty of care should take precedence. Attempt to establish communication with the absent employee. Reach out via multiple channels, such as phone calls and emails. It is important to document all communication attempts for future reference. On top of that, reach out to their emergency contact. There may be a legitimate reason for the unauthorised absence, such as a serious accident or family emergency, and a friend or family member may need to check on their welfare.

  1. Progress Matters in Line With Policies

If the employee remains unresponsive or fails to provide an explanation for their absence following reasonable attempts to contact them, the organisation’s disciplinary policy or AWOL procedure should be followed. You should continue attempting to contact them via phone and email, but also send a letter in writing to them. 

Depending on the situation and the employee’s track record, you may need to consider implementing disciplinary measures.

A manager attempts to contact an employee who is AWOL for a fourth time. The manager considers whether disciplinary action might be appropriate.

Key Things to Remember When Addressing Unexplained Absences

Rather than jumping straight to a disciplinary process, it’s essential that employers deal with unauthorised absences with empathy. Addressing the instances in a timely way, yet with fairness, is key:

Don’t assume the worst. When addressing unexplained absences, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Approach the situation with an open mind, recognising that there may be underlying reasons or circumstances that contribute to the absences. Give employees the benefit of the doubt and provide them with an opportunity to explain their situation. Make sure you listen to their reasons.

Conduct return-to-work interviews. When employees return after an unexplained absence, always conduct return-to-work interviews. As explained by the CIPD, return-to-work interviews can be used to start a dialogue about any underlying issues. Managers can also highlight what’s expected of employees in terms of following the correct process for each and every absence.

Offer Support. Employees may face personal or work-related challenges that contribute to unexplained absences. Offer support mechanisms such as Employee Assistance Programmes or other resources for managing stress and work-life balance. Providing these supportive resources can help employees address underlying issues and reduce the likelihood of future absences.

When an Employee Fails to Improve: The Consequences Of Persistent Unauthorised Absence From Work

So, you’ve followed your in-house procedure, yet your employee still takes time off without permission. At this point, this could be considered gross misconduct.

If this is the case, and you’ve explored the possibility of any underlying issues and also offered support, it looks like a more formal approach will be needed. 

Organisations should have a well-defined disciplinary policy that outlines the consequences for unexplained absences. It is crucial to follow this policy consistently and fairly for all employees. This ensures transparency and fairness in the process of addressing persistent unexplained absences.

Here are some possible outcomes for employees who are regularly absent without leave:

  • Exploring Alternative Work Arrangements

In some cases, persistent unexplained absences may be related to personal circumstances or challenges that can be addressed through alternative work arrangements. Employers can consider flexible hours, temporarily adjusted work hours, or remote work options for those who typically work onsite.

Employers could even explore whether redeployment into another role may be required. This could be justifiable if good attendance is critical to the current role. For instance, childcare settings require certain ratios of adults to children. If this can’t be met, it can lead to serious consequences for the organisation.

  • Verbal Or Written Warnings

As per the organisation’s disciplinary policy,  issuing verbal or written warnings is often the first consequence. Verbal warnings are typically used as an initial reminder, whilst written warnings formally document the issue and may include specific expectations and timelines for improvement.

  • Dismissal

In severe cases where persistent unauthorised absences from work continue despite warnings and support, dismissal may become necessary as a result of employee misconduct. Termination should only be considered as a last resort and in line with the organisation’s policies.

A manager trying to prevent unauthorised absence.

How to Manage Unauthorised Absences: Example Scenarios

Here are some examples of different situations where employees have unauthorised absences and what you should consider in these scenarios:

  1. Employee A frequently takes unexplained absences on Mondays, resulting in disruptions to team productivity.

Arrange a meeting with Employee A to discuss the recurring absences on Mondays and the impact on the team. Listen to any reasons provided and consider whether there are underlying issues affecting attendance. Reinforce the organisation’s attendance expectations and document the conversation. If the absences continue, follow the disciplinary procedure.

  1. Employee B has a history of absences due to chronic health conditions but recently had unexplained absences for multiple days. Upon their return, employee B has highlighted that they expect to be paid for their absences. 

When dealing with health-related absences, it is important to consider potential disabilities protected under the Equality Act 2010. However, being AWOL still constitutes unauthorised absence regardless of whether they’ve had previous absences due to a chronic health condition. First, engage in a compassionate conversation with Employee B. Acknowledge their chronic health conditions and express concern for their wellbeing. During the conversation, clarify the company’s policies regarding reporting absences and the documentation required for paid leave. As highlighted in ACAS guidance, unless specified within the organisation’s policy or the employment contract, there is no legal requirement to pay an employee for unauthorised absences. 

  1. Employee C has had unexplained absences and has shown no improvement despite previous warnings.

In cases where wilful unauthorised absence persists despite previous warnings, it may be necessary to escalate the disciplinary process to a further disciplinary hearing. Schedule a meeting with Employee C to address the continued absences, provide a final written warning if appropriate, and clearly communicate the potential consequences of further unexplained absences, including termination of employment. In some cases, where the employee has already received a final written warning, it may result in a more serious disciplinary sanction such as dismissal.

A manager trying to manage unauthorised absence.



Amy is a knowledgeable People professional with over a decade of experience across a variety of private and public sector organisations. With a particular interest in employee engagement, Amy is an advocate for employee-centric approaches in all areas of HR which is reflected in her writing. Before a career in HR, Amy read English and Creative Writing at university and later studied for her CIPD, HR Management.

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