Unauthorised Absence From Work

  • Leave and Absence
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

What happens if an employee is absent without your permission—what’s your business’ legal standing? We explain what you need to know to keep you productive.

When it hits 10 am and an employee has still not shown up for work, it can be a worrying or frustrating experience. Particularly if this isn’t the first time this has happened.

Your first instinct will be to contact the employee, to ensure they’re okay. But what do you do if you can’t reach them? What rights do you have as an employer to manage this behaviour?

There are actions you can take when an employee is absent without permission, including disciplinary procedures. This is because an employee’s absence can damage the business and result in gross misconduct.

Remember, you can call us on 0800 028 2420 if you need any help with this topic.

But you can also read this guide. In it, we explore the nature of this issue and how you can differentiate between ‘pulling a sickie’ and genuine absence because of illness.

What is unauthorised absence?

It’s where an employee is absent and you haven’t given them permission to do so.

We’ll also clarify what absenteeism is for the sake of this guide. So, what is absence? It’s where a member of staff isn’t in work when they’re usually expected to be.

Unauthorised absence can take many forms. For example, if an employee has requested annual leave but you’ve refused them, and then they take the time off anyway, this is unauthorised.

It’s the opposite of authorised absence from work. Different pieces of legislation provide employees the right to take time off work for various reasons. For example:

  • Annual leave.
  • Time off for antenatal appointments.
  • Compassionate leave.
  • Bereavement leave.

They require the employee to request time off or notify you in advance they’ll be absent. Unauthorised absence from work doesn't include when an employee is:

In a nutshell, unauthorised absence from work will arise when there’s no contractual or statutory right which permits the time off.

Or where the prior permission isn’t sought from you.

Consequences of unauthorised absence from work

Employment law doesn’t require you to pay employees for the unauthorised absence. But, sometimes, you can agree with them how to cover this time.  

For example, sometimes employees are absent for reasons out of their control. Such as if the government is removing the country they’re visiting from the coronavirus quarantine exemption list and causing them to self-isolate on their return for a period of 14 days.

Employees in this situation may not be able to contact you immediately to let you know they’ll not be in work for a few day. Or for when they’ll return.

You could agree with these employees how they can cover the time later. For example, through extra annual leave or taking a period of unpaid leave.  

Unauthorised absence from work disciplinary

If you have reason to believe an employee has deliberately lied to you to take a period of unauthorised leave, you may wish to proceed with a disciplinary and even consider an unauthorised absence dismissal.

However, if you do this, you should make sure you conduct a full investigation into the absence and implement a full disciplinary procedure.

Not doing this could leave you open to a potentially costly unfair dismissal claim.

It can be very difficult to prove that somebody has lied about their absence. After all, you can’t always be lucky enough to happen across pictures of an employee at a gig on a day they rung in sick.

So, you should be able to clearly demonstrate why you believe they’ve lied about their absence.

Is sickness an unauthorised absence?

Unauthorised absence from work may arise when an employee is sick. Specifically, if they’re ill and can’t come into work but don’t follow appropriate notification procedures.

This failure to notify means there isn’t authorisation for the time away from work.

You’re under no obligation to pay the employee for this time—unless the absence is four days or longer.

That’ll make them eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) should they have a medical note. 

However, check the exact circumstances to find out, particularly with sickness absence, whether the notification was a feasible expectation.

For example, if an employee is in hospital as an emergency such as contracting COVID-19, it may not be possible to make a notification.

So, you may decide to override that failure and cover their sick pay.

Your absence from work policy

To make sure your staff are aware of company procedures surrounding absence, you should maintain clear absence policies. This should outline:

  • How staff can request the leave they’re entitled to.
  • What notification they need to provide to ring in sick.
  • If they’ll need a sick note.
  • Whether you allow for self-certification.

While you don’t have to exceed the legal minimum for your policy, you may want to consider including allowances to maintain a good working relationship with staff. 

Returning to work after an absence

Part of the policy should include a return to work policy, for short and long-term sickness absences.

While this isn’t a legal obligation, having procedures such as return to work interviews can benefit you and your employee.  

While it isn’t always a requirement, it may be a legal obligation to do this if the meeting forms part of making reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. You’ll need to discuss this with them beforehand.

Return to work interviews provide an opportunity for the employee to explain their absences and reduce absenteeism because people are less likely to give a non-genuine reason when questioned face-to-face.

This can be after any length of sickness absence, from a long-term period to a member of staff who is absent from work for a single day.

If unauthorised leave turns into a genuine long-term absence, then you’ll have to take other considerations into account.

When an employee is off work for a long time, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pick up from where they left off.

You should have a process to follow when this occurs. Consider a phased return to work as an option for helping them readjust to work duties and environment again.

Need our help?

Need more help with the complex topic of absence management? Get in touch with us today for expert advice: 0800 028 2420.


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