Unauthorized Absence

Unauthorized absence (AWOL) is not a right, know the implications in UK. Disciplinary procedures outline whether unauthorised absence is considered misconduct. There is no protection for an employee even with Time Regulations Act.
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: October 20, 2022
  • 5 Minuten
unauthorized absence or awol absence without leave in the UK and its legal implications explained by Papershift

© / Adobe Stock


Unauthorized absences can have a significant impact on a business, both in financial and operational terms.

Given that these types of absence usually take place unexpectedly, it can be difficult to pre-empt or prevent this type of absence occurring or make arrangements for temporary replacement staff to prevent disruption, especially if you don’t know the reason for absence, or how long the absence is likely to last.

That said, it is important to understand the possible causes for unauthorised absence from work, not only to help minimise the problem, but also to deal with this issue sympathetically.

But what exactly is an unauthorized absence and how can small and medium sized businesses deal with them. Read on to find out.

What is an unauthorized absence?

AWOL (Absence without leave)
An unauthorized absence is when an employee does not attend work and has not given a reason for their absence or contacted their employer to inform them of their absence.

It can also be called one of the following:

  • Absent without leave (AWOL)
  • Absent without permission

If the employee cannot provide good reason for the absence and there is a lack of contact between employer and employer, the employer might consider further investigations that may lead to disciplinary action.

When is an absence considered authorized?

Absences can be considered authorized in a wide variety of situations, including:

  1. Annual leave
  2. Sick leave
  3. Compassionate leave
  4. Jury service
  5. Family-related leave
  6. Unpaid leave
  7. Career breaks
  8. Public duties

For these types of absence, leave authorisation from the company would be granted in advance or would be granted on the day the leave was requested if this were an emergency situation or a sudden bereavement.

What does the UK law say about unauthorized absences?

Unauthorised absences are not an employee right in UK law. For example, if your member of staff chooses to take a day off work to watch a football match, this is not their legal right, no matter how important the match is. If they book the time off, and it is approved, then legally they’re allowed to be absent. If they pretend to be ill in order to go to the match the reverse is true.

And while UK law doesn’t directly address unauthorized absences (it is more concerned with detailing the rights of employees and not their responsibilities), taking an unauthorized absence can lead to disciplinary action or even dismissal.

As an employee, how can I manage unauthorized absences? 

There are many things an employer can do to manage unauthorized absences. These include:

Establish a policy system

It’s important to establish a policy on absence right from the start. Make sure that workers understand what constitutes an authorised and unauthorised absence, and ensure they know that their absence will be noted and investigated where necessary. This may put them off trying to ‘pull a fast one’.

Measure absences

An employer should monitor how much unauthorised time has been taken off and keep records. They may need this at a later date if disciplinary measures are necessary.

Gather evidence

It’s quite shocking how many employees take an unauthorised day off work, then post images of themselves on social media doing something they’re not meant to be doing. Any evidence that an employer can gather will support any disciplinary case if the situation escalates.

Address the problem

It’s sensible to address the problem immediately, rather than allowing a small issue to turn into a potentially big problem. Employers should call employees to find out where they are. If they don’t answer the phone, a message should be left asking that they call the business back. If they take a further day of unauthorised absence, contact should be made again to follow up.

Formalise the situation

If the absence continues, the employer will need to send a formal letter, inviting the employee to a disciplinary hearing. At this stage, it’s often wise for a business to work with a lawyer who specialises in employment law to ensure they follow the correct procedures.

Can an employee be dismissed while absent?

In circumstances where an employee has failed to attend work without explanation, and all attempts have been made to contact the employee over the course of a few days, including any emergency contact, you should send a letter of concern to the employee, preferably by recorded delivery.

Assuming there is still no contact, at this stage it would be appropriate to invite the employee to a disciplinary hearing. If the employee then fails to attend the hearing, it would be advisable to reschedule, giving the employee one final opportunity to state their case but making it clear that a decision may be made in their absence if they do not attend on the next date.

If there is still no contact, it would be open to the employer to decide whether or not to dismiss the employee.

Are employees entitled to pay when on unauthorised absence?

Each workplace will have different rules on what is regarded as acceptable reasons for absence and in what circumstances an employee will be entitled to receive payment for being absent from work. If the absence is unexplained and/or unauthorized (i.e., the employee is not off sick, on holiday, or performing some other duty that entitles them to statutory holiday), then they will not be entitled to pay.

As an employer, when should I consider dismissing an employee?

In most cases, it would be inappropriate to dismiss a worker after just one day of unauthorised absence. It’s important that disciplinary procedures outline whether unauthorised absence is considered misconduct or gross misconduct while allowing for flexibility based on each individual case. At the end of the day, do you want to be seen as the employer who dismissed a valued member of staff due to one unauthorized absence?

Remember, however, that members of staff have a responsibility to notify employers of their absence in an appropriate way. In some instances, providing a sick note after the absence may be acceptable (for example, if they were rushed to hospital and were unable to let you know where they were).

If an employer is not sure of their rights as an employer, it’s advisable to seek help from an employment law specialist.

In conclusion

Unauthorized absences cost business owners thousands of pounds each year. We hope that, with a little help from this guide, you now understand the topic better.

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Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)