Has your employee disappeared? What to do when your employee goes AWOL

19th February 2018

When your employee goes AWOL, it’s incredibly frustrating. You don’t know what’s caused their absence, if the person’s ok, or when they will return. It so easy to take it personally when it’s your business.

You may also have a million questions like: Who will pick up the person’s work? What should I tell my customers? Will they return their company property? Can I hire a replacement?

Although no one would blame you for being angry and disappointed in this situation, it’s important to follow some important steps, to avoid falling foul of the law. A quick decision to dismiss the person, without due process, could leave you open to possible claims of unfair dismissal or disability discrimination. So, here’s the steps I would recommend you take to manage this difficult situation.

  1. Attempt to make contact

 You may not feel like calling the person if they don’t show up, but you’ll need to demonstrate that you’ve taken all reasonable steps to contact the person. Your first step will be to call and email the employee. Keep a record of your phone calls and the voicemail messages you leave, as well as copies of your emails / texts to them.

You could also call the person’s emergency contact or ask a trusted colleague to call by the person’s house. You’ll need to make a judgement call as to how appropriate these options are though. For example, how out of character is this absence? If it’s one of your most loyal, valued and long serving employees, you are likely to be more worried about their welfare than if it’s someone who has previously demonstrated a poor attitude to work.

If you’ve not heard from the person following repeated attempts to contact them by phone or email, then you’ll need to write to them. Express your concern for their wellbeing, explain that their continued unauthorised absence is a serious matter and explain the detrimental impact it’s having on the business. Ask them to contact you to discuss their absence and inform you of their intentions regarding their return to work. It’s a good idea to state a date and time as a deadline for them to contact you by and list the ways they can contact you.

  1. Still not heard – Begin the disciplinary procedure

If there’s still no response from the employee, this is where your company’s disciplinary procedure will kick in. You should already have stated in a letter to the employee that they are potentially facing disciplinary action. You should follow the steps outlined in your disciplinary policy. It’s possible that the employee won’t attend the meeting. You can pre-empt this by stating in the disciplinary letter that if they don’t attend, a decision to dismiss may be taken in their absence. It might be more reasonable for a business with more resources to reschedule the disciplinary meeting, allowing the employee a second chance to attend.

  1. Dismiss them and move on

If they didn’t attend the disciplinary hearing, you can write to them to confirm they are dismissed (from the date of the disciplinary hearing – although you would not normally pay them for the time they were off). It’s important you do this in writing and give them the right to appeal. It may seem pointless but you want to do everything you can to comply with the law.

Then you can draw a line under it and start recruiting for an amazing replacement that wont let you down.

Some important considerations 

The timeframes you work to, the number of times you try to contact the person, and the number of opportunities you give them to respond, before you move to the next stage in the process, are going to depend on many factors. There is really no one size fits all. It depends on the circumstances of the situation, and the impact it’s having on your business.

It’s always a balance of being fair and reasonable to the employee on the one side, and the needs of the business and the extent of the effect it’s having, on the other. If you are a small business with a handful of employees, you probably can’t afford to spend as much time as a larger business can, in attempting to make informal contact with your employee before you initiate the disciplinary process.

Essentially, you’ll need to be able to justify your actions and the timeframe you’ve acted within, and your actions should be based on the following factors:

  1. The size of your business and the resources you have available to manage this situation
  2. The position of the employee (for example, if they hold a business-critical senior position which cannot be covered by agency staff or existing employees)
  3. What is the real impact on the business (for example, have you lost custom?)
  4. The person’s track record and previous pattern of behaviour

What happens if the employee unexpectedly turns up at work

Although you might have been assuming that you would never see this employee again, it could be that they just as suddenly reappear at work. It really depends on the duration of their absence, the reasons for their absence, and their attitude and intentions regarding their employment with you, and the extent of the impact on your business, as to the stance you take with them. Going AWOL is a serious matter, so you might begin the disciplinary procedure anyway.

Important guiding principles

I hope you find this guidance helpful if you find yourself having to deal with this scenario. In summary, these are some fundamental principles to bear in mind:

  • Demonstrate all reasonable efforts have been made to contact the employee
  • Keep records of all contact attempts
  • Ensure that you follow a fair and reasonable process which follows your disciplinary policy


What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


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