Absence Management: Creating a Policy That Works

By Andrew Willis
10 Jul 2024

Did you know that an unauthorised leave of absence could lead to disciplinary action or a misconduct claim for your employee?

But what should you do if you have an employee who has taken an unauthorised leave of absence? What happens if an employee has taken an excessive absence from the business?

In this article, we will take you through what an unauthorised leave of absence is and some of the common questions we get asked.

If you require support in your legal issues and handling unauthorised absences, get in touch with one of our experts.

Absence management book containing absence data to support employees.

What is absence management?

The average UK worker is absent for almost seven days annually. As you can imagine, this long term absence costs employers a significant amount in sick pay.

Absence management is a way of reducing the number of business days lost without negatively impacting employee morale.

Leave of absence laws

The Working Time Regulations specify the maximum an employee can work in a day before having time off work. It also specifies that every worker must have (at least) 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave each year.

Finally, the law dictates that employees have the right to take additional leave from work for a number of different reasons.

a desk with the managing absence document on it outlining the absence management process

a desk with the managing absence document on it outlining the absence management process

Types of leave

Maternity leave

When an employee is pregnant, they have the right to time off to care for their baby. The earliest maternity leave can begin is 11 weeks prior to the expected week of childbirth.

However, if the baby arrives early, maternity leave starts the day after the birth or if your staff is off work sick due to pregnancy-related issues in the fourth week before the birth of the baby then their maternity leave begins automatically. Then, they are entitled to statutory maternity leave, which is 52 weeks. This is made up of:

  • Ordinary maternity leave (first 26 weeks)
  • Additional maternity leave (last 26 weeks)

Employees don’t have to take the full 52 weeks, but they must take a minimum of two weeks leave after their baby is born.

Paternity leave

Similar to maternity leave, this is when an employee takes time off because their partner is having a baby, adopting, or having a baby through surrogacy.

The employee can choose to take either 1 or 2 weeks leave, they can separate the two weeks if they wish to, but the time must be taken within 52 weeks of the birth or adoption.

A week counts as the normal amount of days the individual normally works in a week. So, if an employee works 3 days a week, and has 2 weeks paternity leave, they’d have 6 days off.

Leave can’t begin before the birth.

Shared parental leave (SPL)

New parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave. Both the leave and pay must be shared within the first year of the employees’ child being born. The 50 weeks can be taken in blocks or all in one go. Employees can also choose to stagger the leave and pay.

To be entitled to SPL, both employees must meet the eligibility criteria and provide you with sufficient notice. The notice period must be at least eight weeks before the first period of leave that the employee wishes to take.

The criteria is as follows:

  • Both parents must share responsibility for the child at birth
  • They must both have been continuously employed by for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the due date.
  • They must remain under your employ for the period of SPL
  • Be ‘employees’

Bereavement leave

There’s no legal requirement to provide an employee time off following the death of a loved one. Whether you offer it—paid or unpaid—is at your discretion. Most employers do tend to offer this, and you should outline when it can be taken and for how long in your employment documents.

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are often used interchangeably. The two are very similar, however, bereavement typically refers to the death of a loved one, whereas compassionate can be taken to care for a dependant or a sick relative.


Of course, that’s not all. There’s also:

  • Parental Bereavement leave
  • Time off to deal with duties as a trade union official
  • Time off for dependants
  • Time off for parental leave
  • Time off for antenatal care
  • Time off to deal with duties as a European Works Council member
  • Study leave for 16/17 years olds for certain qualifications
  • Time off during notice of redundancy when seeking new work
  • Time off for health & safety representative duties
  • Time off for pension fund trustee duties
  • Time off for jury service
  • Time off for employee representative duties
  • Time off to accompany a colleague to a disciplinary or grievance
  • Suspension

If you have questions about any of these types of leave, or an employee is off work for none of the reasons above, speak to a Croner adviser today on 0800 141 3779.

a workplace with an effective absence management system for the health and wellbeing of employees

How to manage absence

It doesn’t matter what type of leave or absence you are trying to manage. The techniques tend to be the same. So, whether you’re struggling with sickness absence, staff turnover, unauthorised absences or absenteeism, here are a few methods you can employ:

  1. Return to work interviews: This is considered one of the most effective ways of reducing absence. After any time off, but particularly after sickness absence, have a catch up with the employee. This helps establish any alternative arrangements that might need to be made to accommodate the employee. It also highlights that you are monitoring employee absence closely, meaning the number of unauthorised absences drops.
  2. Measure lost time: This helps you understand the full extent of absences, and what the root causes are. With this knowledge, you are able to implement new systems to address the problem. Using methods such as the Bradford Factor, you’re able to identify persistent short-term absence. This allows you to sit down with the individuals and discuss what their particular issue is.
  3. Create an absence management policy: Having a clear policy will reinforce that you take absence seriously while demonstrating employees’ rights and responsibilities. You’re legally obliged to inform the employee about sick leave and pay, but why not take the opportunity to go into detail on the other types of leave and absence?
  4. Employee assistance programmes: If employees are struggling, or they have problems at home, an EAP is a great way of ensuring they get the help they need quickly and effectively. You can find details on our employee assistance programme here.

Finally, when all other options are exhausted, you can go down the disciplinary route. This should always be a last resort after trying everything else. Ensure that any dismissals as a result of absence are non-discriminatory and follow a fair procedure. That way, you can minimise the risk of an unfair dismissal claim.

an lack of absence management software, with employers using folders instead.

Benefits of managing employees' time-off

Managing sickness absences allows you to both identify trends and address some underlying problems within your workforce. Other benefits of sickness absence management include:

  • Retention and productivity: A fair and effective policy improves employee retention and productivity. Your workers are likely to be more productive and stay longer at a company that cares about their wellbeing.
  • Preventing problems: It can help you to prevent smaller problems from developing into larger ones. The policy allows you to implement alternative plans when an employee is off sick. That removes any pressure for staff members to come back to work before they are fully ready.
  • Identifying patterns: Reviewing the records for staff absences provides you with data to identify patterns in the way that your staff take time off. Online management tools can highlight patterns of absenteeism such as after bank holidays or a specific day of the week. This allows you to recognise and address patterns that concern you with your employee.

What is an unauthorised leave of absence?

An unauthorised absence is when an employee doesn't come to work without having a valid reason, or permission.

These absences are also referred to as absence without leave (AWOL).

Unauthorised absences aren't only limited to when an employee takes the whole day off work. It can refer to an employee being late to work without a valid reason, especially if it's a regular occurrence.

Depending on your company's absence policies, the unauthorised leave of absence could be unpaid leave. 

Employee sick policy

In your employee handbook, you should outline your sick policy. This will help employees report a sickness absence, and know what is required from them.

This should include;

  1. How do they report an absence? Do they have to call, text, or email or can they leave you a social media message? 
  2. Who do they need to contact to report an absence?
  3. When do they need to let your business know they won't be in? For example, do you need to know before their shift starts or within a certain time period of their shift starting?
  4. When do they think they'll be back at work? this will help you get a better understanding of how many days an employee will be off, and how long you'll need to arrange cover for.
  5. You should tell your employee if you have any notification procedures you have. For example, if they need to tell you how they are on the fourth day of illness.
  6. Evidence. As part of your company policies, you can ask for a doctor's note or another qualifying piece of evidence to prove their illness.

a workplace aware of their employee absences through attendance management.

What doesn't count as an unauthorised absence?

There are certain circumstances that don't count as an unauthorised leave of absence. We've listed a few of them below.

Annual leave

Annual leave or holiday entitlement is the amount of paid time off an employee can take per year. The amount they can take should be outlined in your employment contract. The contract should also outline payment terms and state if they are only entitled to statutory holiday pay.

Sick leave

Sick leave is the time an employee can take off as sick days. Employees are entitled to statutory sick pay and can claim up to 28 weeks of SSP.

Maternity leave

Maternity leave is for employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth. They have the right to take time off to recuperate from birth, build a bond with the baby and care for it.

Paternity leave

Paternity leave is when an employee takes time off because their partner is having a baby, adopting, or having a baby through surrogacy.

a father and child while he is on paternity leave logged through the absence management system.

Bereavement leave

As a recent edition to employment law, Statutory Parental bereavement leave entitles employees to have reasonable time off for dependents. Time off for dependants can also apply when a dependant dies to make arrangements.  

It's down to the employer's discretion whether this is paid leave or unpaid leave. Employees should be able to refer to a clear policy on bereavement or compassionate leave for their understanding.

Jury duty

Employers may find that an employee needs to attend jury service or to attend public duties. If an employee is called for jury duty, you need to allow them to take the leave. You can request that the employees delay their service, but this can only be delayed once in a 12-month period.

Carer's leave

This is where an employee needs to take time off to care for a family member or a loved one who has a long-term illness, although this hasn’t been written into law yet. 

a carer with their patient.


Employees can take time off for appointments if they've informed their employer first or if it's an emergency appointment. These could include hospital or doctor's appointments, dentist visits or antenatal appointments.

These types of leave will require permission in advance and you can pay employees for this time off - unless it's been agreed as unpaid leave. In some instances such as bereavement leave, or medical emergency, leave can be authorised on the day(s) the leave is necessary.

You should include in your employment contract what counts as an unauthorised leave of absence.

Unauthorised leave of absence procedure

If you find that you've got an employee who takes an unauthorised leave of absence, you should ensure you follow your company's procedures. This can often happen in the first two days of the absence.

On the first day of the leave of absence.

On the first day of absence, you should make a reasonable attempt at contacting your employee. Even though some managers may feel like it's not their responsibility to chase employees. You should remember that you have a duty of care to your employees.

You should try and make contact throughout the day and record all attempts. You can try and make contact by phone, email or in text/WhatsApp messages.

If after a few hours, you haven't been able to make contact, you should try and contact your employee's emergency contacts.

If you still haven't been able to make contact with the employee, you should write them a letter asking them to get in contact with you. This is often called a letter of concern.

When your employee does get back in contact with you, you can ask them for the reason for their absence. At this point, it's at the employer's discretion whether they want to take the unauthorised leave of absence forward to unauthorised absence disciplinary action in disciplinary hearings.

employee morale that has decreased when they broke their arm.

On the second day of leave of absence

On the second day of the employee's leave of absence, you should try and get in contact with them again. If you know that they live alone, it might be appropriate to arrange a well-being check.

Unauthorised leave of absence disciplinary process

As taking a leave of absence without permission is an act of misconduct, you need to ensure you approach it with your employee in the correct way. If you've followed the steps of your unauthorised leave of absence procedure, and still haven't been able to get in contact with them.

When can you invite them to a disciplinary hearing?

If you've followed the rules on unauthorised staff absence at work before, and followed the correct procedures, and still haven't been able to get in contact with them. You can invite them to a disciplinary hearing. Here they will be asked to give the reason for their absence, and then face any disciplinary actions.

In the invitation, you should include the reason for the meeting, and outline your attempts to contact your employee.

The invitation letter should be sent to the employee on a tracked delivery and emailed to them - if you have an email address on file for them. This will help minimise the chances of the employee claiming they didn't receive the letter.

When you conduct the employee's disciplinary hearing, it should be done in line with the company's disciplinary procedure.

What happens if the employee doesn't turn up?

If you find yourself in a situation where the employee hasn't turned up to the meeting, you should send out the invitation letter again with the rescheduled date. This new invitation should state that the meeting will go ahead without the employee if they fail to attend.

Remember that your employee has the statutory right to bring a witness to the disciplinary hearings, they could be someone from their trade union or a colleague.

a workplace that utilises flexible working

Can I dismiss an employee for an unauthorised absence?

As an unauthorised leave of absence isn’t normally considered to be an act of gross misconduct, it wouldn't be wise to dismiss an employee for this reason. Especially if this is an isolated instance.

If your employee has two years of service, and you dismissed them, they could put a claim against you for unfair dismissal.

If the employee has received warnings before about their absences, the multiple misconduct occurrences could make a strong case for dismissal.

How to prevent an unauthorised employee absence?

It can be difficult to prevent an employee from taking an unauthorised leave of absence, especially when it's around major sporting events or in the summertime.

Where you can, use an absence request form. Sometimes you may need to turn down the request.

As per the Working Time Regulations 1998, employers do have the right to decline holiday requests, but you should only decline a request if you have a valid reason to do so.

If you do find yourself having to decline an employee's annual leave, it's best that you do it in writing. Give your employee an apology, the reason for declining, and suggest an alternative time that they can take off. 

If there is pushback from an employee and you feel they make take an unauthorised absence, ensure that you provide them with a letter warning of the consequences for the unauthorised leave of absence and remind them that the absence will be classed as unpaid leave.

In this letter refer to your disciplinary policy and if necessary show your employee where they can find it.

Returning to work after a leave of absence

Within your absence policy, you should include what happens when an employee returns to work after a leave of absence. This is regardless of whether the leave is for paid parental leave, medical leave, or any kind of unpaid leave or paid leave.

When you have an employee returning to work, you can perform a return-to-work interview.

Return-to-work interviews aren't limited to only preventing absenteeism at work, but they go hand in hand with your duty of care towards your employees.

You can utilise a return to work interview to:

  • Keep a record of individual health, and ensure the appropriate adjustments are made for them if needed.
  • Keep records about any follow-up appointments or care the employee may need.
  • Organise additional support for your employee, this can help avoid excessive absences.
  • Make reasonable adjustments for the individual if they are going through a recovery process but are still fit for work. You can use the return to work interview to see if they need to take medication that will affect their performance or if it will affect their ability to drive to work.

a HR team ensuring that work related stress is reduced at a computer.

Need help managing unauthorised leave of absence?

It can become difficult to manage an unauthorised leave of absence, particularly if you have a large number of employees. If you are unsure or want more information on how you can improve your absence policy, get in touch with one of the team.

Croner has a team of award-winning, HR professionals and consultants who are specialists in their field. We've been helping businesses for over 80 years and our advice line is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Why not speak to a Croner expert on  0800 470 2827

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.