Unauthorised absence is when someone takes time away from the workplace without having a valid, authorised reason to do so. It's also known as skiving, bunking off, or skipping work.

There are absence types that aren't included in this definition, like when a member of your team:

  • Books annual leave.
  • Has a genuine certified/notified sickness.
  • Is absent due to maternity or paternity leave (including time off for antenatal classes).
  • Is away from their role due to a statutory right, like searching for work after being made redundant.
  • Takes one of the other absence types.

While some might consider bunking off for the day as an inconsequential bit of freedom (around half of employees admit to having done so in the past), the truth is that unauthorised absence can cause serious issues.

The consequences of unauthorised absence

During an unauthorised absence, managers and HR departments can get bogged down with admin tasks, while colleagues end up having to pick up the workload of the absentee.

It goes without saying that most companies don’t take kindly to unauthorised absences. Those who get found out usually find themselves on the end of disciplinary action. In severe cases, repeat unauthorised absences could even be grounds for dismissal - after all, taking a day’s unauthorised leave while getting paid for the privilege is technically theft (although many might argue against it).

Thankfully, most people understand that unauthorised absences put a large strain on colleagues who have to make up the shortfall. Whatever your view on pulling a sickie, it’s important that everybody in your organisation is on the same page.

This means you need to provide clear and concise guidance regarding unauthorised absences (and its consequences) via absence policies or employment contracts.

Putting together an employee sickness policy

Your staff handbook or absence policy should cover the procedure for reporting illness, otherwise people will be confused about what absences are allowed. This should include:

  • Who your team members need to contact to report the illness
  • What time they need to contact the relevant department by, on the day.
  • When they think they will be well enough to return to work.
  • How to provide evidence of sickness (like a doctor’s note).

While these steps should be taken voluntarily by genuinely sick employees, you might find that sometimes you need to be proactive in getting to the bottom of why they've failed to show up for work. If you’ve not heard anything from an absent colleague, you should attempt to make a decent effort to find out what's going on. Your HR department should keep at least one contact number and an email address for them.

It’s also important to make a record of every time you've tried to contact an absent individual. Make a note in your HR records of the time you attempted contact, the method used (phone or email, for example), and who at your company tried to contact them.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson / Unsplash

Disciplinary procedures

Ultimately, unauthorised absence is worthy of a disciplinary - and as a manager, how you deal with it is up to you. Explain to your team that unauthorised absence counts as employee misconduct - although you should be aware that it would be unwise to class unauthorised absence as gross misconduct (in other words, a sackable offence), unless you’ve previously warned them, in writing, over multiple unexplained absences. An accumulation of such offences would allow you to make a stronger case for dismissing someone.

Promoting understanding

As a manager, it can be helpful to look inwards at your workplace culture to try and understand if there’s anything that might cause team members to take unwarranted leave. Are there any situations causing stress? Could you improve morale or help people improve their workplace wellbeing?

It’s also worth taking into account that in a post-pandemic landscape, the way we deal with managing unauthorised absence might have to change, too. COVID-19 has transformed the way we work - the home office is now the norm, and this can mean things like childcare arrangements can get in the way of logging into a remote terminal at a given time each morning.

Trust your instinct: if you feel like someone is taking advantage, act accordingly. If it appears to be a genuine case of sickness, you may feel that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is the best course of action.

Return-to-work interviews

Holding an interview with an employee after they return after an unauthorised absence can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to helping employee relations. These interviews give you a chance to enquire about their wellbeing, and gives them the chance to discuss personal or professional issues that are causing disruption to their working life.

Back-to-work interviews are also useful in discouraging employees from skiving off - after all, nobody wants to spend a morning being quizzed about it when they come back.

The bottom line

Sickness and absence management is incredibly important in businesses of all sizes. When implemented correctly with clear, concise policies, you'll be well protected against the disruptive aspects of unauthorised absence. This will help to reduce workplace stress, foster a more positive attitude among employees and reduce the costs associated with losing people unexpectedly.