Doesn’t the term ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL) sound - oh so very military? Well, that’s because it is a military term. Someone who is absent from their post or duty without permission. But the term is also used for anyone who isn’t where they are expected to be, and in employment terms, that’s an employee who hasn’t turned up for work.
When an employee is absent from work, and doesn’t notify their employer why, the first reaction, I hope, is genuine concern for them. Has the employee been in a traffic accident? Are they too ill to call in? If the employee is usually very reliable, then concern will be all the greater and all stops pulled out to try to find out what has befallen them.
However, sometimes employers are unfortunate enough to have to deal with employees who are less than reliable. They don’t comply with reporting procedures as they should, and they always have a very ‘good’ excuse why not. They woke up and thought it was a Sunday - all day! They lost their voice and couldn’t speak on the phone and lost their smart phone so couldn’t text or email. We’ve heard them all before.
But they do eventually turn up, and the employer can decide whether or not any disciplinary action is appropriate. Some employees, however, seem to disappear off the face of the earth. Well, I say that (what usually happens is that one of their colleagues will tip you off that they’ve started work for another employer and just not bothered telling you). If you don’t know where they are, however, or can’t prove they are working for someone else, can you just stop their pay? Well, it depends. If your contracts of employment are clear that pay will be deducted for any unauthorised absence, then you can stop pay without fear of facing a successful unauthorised deductions claim. The problem is many employers don’t include such clauses in their contracts.
So what about dismissal? The reason is clear – it’s gross misconduct because they are continually absent, but you still have to follow a fair procedure. An audit trail of calls/emails/letters trying to make contact with them, and finally a requirement to attend a disciplinary hearing (with the advice that if they don’t show you will dismiss in their absence) will be necessary to demonstrate a fair procedure.
You may be surprised to learn how many individuals come out of the woodwork to claim that their employer has unfairly dismissed them, or deducted pay unlawfully, and more surprised to learn how many are successful because their employer thought they were long gone.
The moral of this story is…be very concerned about your reliable and trustworthy employees who go AWOL, and even more concerned about your unreliable ones who do!