What to do when staff don't turn up to work

Anna Roberts

Apr 2017 ⋅ 7 min read

Skipping a day at school or a lecture at uni seemed inconsequential at the time, but skiving work isn’t quite as harmless!

When an employee fails to turn up to work for whatever reason, you face an immediate, unexpected staff shortage. If the absent employee plays a critical role in running your business - maybe they’re the head chef or the only key holder for the shift - then you’re stuck.

Your only option is to desperately ring your other employees and plead them to work the shift at zero notice. If that doesn’t work, you might not even be able to open your business at all for that shift.

Even if you can cope without the absent employee for the day, there’s still the thorny issue of discipline - if and when the employee returns from their unauthorised absence.

All-in-all, dealing with unauthorised absences is not just a hassle - it’s potentially damaging to your business.

Types of Unauthorised Absence

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When an employee goes AWOL, your response will depend on many factors. First of all, what’s the reason for your employee’s no show?

  • Emergencies. Perhaps the employee is dealing with a family emergency or is suffering an emergency of their own. Sure, you might like the employee to at least send a text or email to explain their absence, but you can’t expect this when a serious emergency is underway. Remember that an employee may be unwilling to divulge the nature of the emergency if it’s personal.
  • No good reason. Maybe the employee couldn’t be bothered to call in, overslept, or simply wanted a duvet day.
  • Illness. You should expect the employee to follow procedures for reporting illness. If they don’t, you might count their absence as unauthorised.
  • Unauthorised holiday. In this case, the employee had a leave request for the day in question denied. The employee may already have had flights, accommodation and other plans booked, so they took the time off anyway.
  • They’ve quit. Instead of handing in their notice, the employee simply stops turning up to work.

Clearly each of these scenarios requires a different approach, but it’s not immediately obvious which applies to any given absence.

To keep things fair, you need to tackle each scenario in the same way - but only initially!


man typing on macbook

Step one: Try to contact the employee & arrange cover

When an employee doesn’t show, wait a certain number of minutes after the scheduled start of their shift, then call them.

If you don’t have a policy stating the amount of time to wait before contacting the employee, 15 minutes is a good starting point if the employee is critical to your business. You can extend this to 30-60 minutes for non-critical employees to significantly reduce the chance that the employee is just late, instead of skipping work.

Regardless of whether you reach the employee, make a note of the time you called.

If you reach the employee, ask them to explain what’s going on and when you can expect them in the office. If they’re merely running late, all you need to do is make a note of this (if you don’t require employees to clock in) for your records, and consider disciplinary procedures where necessary. Note down what you discussed in the call.

If you can’t contact the employee, wait for another 30-60 minutes and try again, making a note of the call time again.

If that doesn’t work, reach out to their emergency contact, if you hold their details. They may have some information that can help.

If the initial phone call is left unanswered, or the employee has told you they can’t make it for several hours, arrange cover as soon as you can.

Step two: Send out a recorded letter

If the unauthorised absence continues into its second day, send a recorded letter to the employee’s home address.

The letter should include:

  • The dates/shifts that the employee hasn’t shown up for
  • Details of the dates and times you’ve attempted to contact the employee
  • How and when to contact you to discuss the reasons for their absence and when they will return to work
  • If you expect them to have a doctor’s note
  • That you regard their absence as unauthorised (and your reasons for this)
  • If their pay will be docked
  • Whether you class their absence as serious or gross misconduct (this will depend on previous levels of absenteeism)
  • Potential disciplinary actions
  • A note that you are also concerned about their wellbeing and whereabouts

Make sure the letter requires a signature on delivery so that you can be certain the employee received it.

If you don’t receive a response in the 48 hours after your letter has been received, send another.

If the letter can’t be delivered, contact the emergency contact again and ask employees if anyone knows the whereabouts of the employee. You should file a missing person report if no-one knows.

If the employee gets in touch with a doctor’s note, arrange a return to work meeting to discuss if any reasonable adjustments need to be made.

If the employee gets in touch and you arrange their return to work, it’s time to consider disciplinary action.

Step three: Disciplinary hearing

Even if you haven’t had a response to your recorded letter, you should arrange a disciplinary hearing. Send a letter and an email with information on the hearing date and time, and that the hearing will go ahead even if the employee does not attend.

At the hearing, follow your usual disciplinary procedure. Determine whether or not the unauthorised absence constitutes gross misconduct - and grounds for instant dismissal.

Usually this’ll depend on whether or not their absence was prolonged, damaging to the business, or if the employee has a record of numerous unauthorised absences in the past.

Step four: Dismissal

We hope that it doesn’t come to this, but in some cases, dismissal will be the only option.

Make sure you have plenty of evidence to back up any dismissal decision, such as logs of when you attempted to contact the employee, their timesheets and their Bradford Factor score.

You must also investigate the situation fully before dismissing a member of staff. Remember that employees who’ve worked at your business for less than two years won’t be able to claim unfair dismissal.

Regardless of whether you fire the employee, your other staff will take notice of how you handled the disciplinary process. If you’re too forgiving, you’ll soon find other employees taking advantage of your leniency…

Unauthorised Holidays

reflection of plane in window

If the absence is a case of an employee taking leave without permission, you’ll want to handle it a little differently.

  • If you know that the employee intends to take time off even after a denied holiday request, you can send out a letter (and email) in advance, warning them of the consequences.
  • If they don’t turn up despite your warning, send out a strongly worded letter via recorded delivery on the first day of their absence.
  • Don’t hold the hearing until they’re back from their holiday - you must at least give the employee the opportunity to state their case.

If unauthorised holidays are a common occurrence at your company, revisit your approach to managing and prioritising leave requests.

Quitting Without Notice

When an employee goes AWOL, your other staff might know if they intended to quit by failing to turn up for work.

Follow the usual process for handling unauthorised absences, but consider amending your letters with a note asking whether they intend to return to work. This could save you the hassle of arranging a disciplinary hearing.

If you end up providing a reference for the employee in question, you may include the fact that they quit without notice. Be careful to stick to the facts so that the employee doesn’t pursue legal action.

Forming Policies

If you struggle to handle employee no-shows consistently, you should formalise or create a set of policies covering this area.

This isn’t the most exciting task, but it’ll save you plenty of hassle in the long term.

Think about these policies:

  • Sickness reporting
  • Holiday requests
  • Disciplinary

We won’t go into detail on disciplinary policies and holiday request policies in this article, but we will take a quick look at sickness reporting policies.

By clarifying with employees how they should report sickness, you’ll reduce the number of no call, no show incidents and the chaos they cause.

All you need to include in the procedure is:

  • Who the employee should report to (their manager, senior management, supervisor). The specific person’s name could be mentioned in each employee’s contract.
  • When the employee should report their sickness by (eg. at least 15 minutes before the start of their shift)
  • The channels for reporting sickness (phone, text or email?)
  • When a doctor’s note is required

Apply this policy consistently! This’ll mean that employees can’t pretend they were unfamiliar with your sickness reporting requirements when going AWOL.

Overall, make sure your employee policies are accessible and easy to understand - but also legally sound.

Final thoughts

When an employee doesn’t turn up, it’s easy to get wrapped up in short term problems - such as the small matter of who’s going to cover for them - but you can’t lose sight of the long term problems.

By taking a firm but fair approach to unauthorised absences, you can keep them in check whilst still showing empathy and understanding when a true emergency does arise.

If you still struggle to find cover for shifts at short notice, it might be worthwhile to revisit your approach to rota planning. How about software that notifies all employees with a certain role when a shift becomes available?

For more staff management and HR tips, head back to the RotaCloud blog homepage.