How to handle an employee’s unauthorised absence from work

Unauthorised absence from work can have a significant impact on your business, both in economical and operational terms.

If an employee is a no-show, it can leave you scrambling for cover or looking for staff to take on an extra workload. And what if the employee fails to notify you why they’re absent even when you try to make contact? What can you do then?

Let’s find out…

What is an unauthorised absence?

An unauthorised absence (absence without leave or AWOL) is when an employee has taken leave without their employer’s approval. Also, the reasons they give for being away are often unacceptable.

The term ‘unauthorised absence’ has no formal legal definition. Yet, it’s generally accepted as a situation where an employee has failed to attend work without the employer’s permission to do so.

An employee may contact you to explain their absence but gives a reason that’s unpermitted under the terms and conditions of their employment contract. For example, an unplanned holiday or last-minute medical appointment. It can even cover absences where you don’t believe the excuse given by the employee.

How to deal with unauthorised absence from work

If an employee is absent from work without prior authorisation, contact them to better understand the reason for their absence. Any lack of contact from an employee who is ordinarily reliable may indicate a problem and should be investigated carefully.

You can contact the employee via their mobile or landline, leaving a voicemail message where at all possible. You might even try an emergency contact number. It’s also good practice to express your concern in writing, asking your employee to contact you at the earliest possible opportunity.

In circumstances where you can’t make contact with the employee, you should immediately discuss the absence with them on their return. How you choose to deal with an unauthorised absence will depend on what explanation the employee provides, both for the absence itself and for their failure to notify you.

You should always consider each situation of unauthorised absence on its own facts. Circumstances may sometimes justify a more lenient and compassionate approach. For example, the sudden death of a close relative or involvement in a serious accident.

There are also the consequences of unauthorised absence from work to consider. If an employee can’t offer a suitable explanation, you may need to consider conducting an investigation and taking formal disciplinary action.

Unauthorised absence from work is also a misconduct offence. Most employers will cite AWOL on a non-exhaustive list of examples of misconduct offences under their disciplinary policy.

Time for an unauthorised absence policy?

You may want to consider a policy to ensure a consistent approach to handling each case of unauthorised absence.

As with absence from work due to sickness, you must consider all the individual circumstances of a particular case before making a decision. For example, if the unauthorised absence is due to adverse weather conditions, look at how reasonable it was for the employee to get to work before deciding what action, if any, to take.

Article: What exactly does a disciplinary procedure consist of?

Get expert guidance on unauthorised absence with Graphite

Handling unauthorised absence can be complicated. But it should always follow the appropriate procedure.

Graphite provides expert guidance on unauthorised absence and other forms of absence. If you have any questions, contact our advice line on 01 886 0350.

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Nora Cashe


Nóra studied Law in Griffith College Dublin and qualified as a Barrister in 2008, practising in the area of Criminal law. She is also member of the Irish Employment Law Association.

Nora has extensive experience representing clients at Employment Tribunal hearings, Conciliation / Mediation meetings before both the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. 

Nóra is a member of the Irish Employment Law Association and engages with the WRC Adjudication Service as part of their stakeholder engagement forum.

Deiric McCann

Genos International Europe

Deiric McCann leads Genos International Europe – The EU division of a world-leading provider of emotional intelligence solutions. 

With over two decades experience at the highest levels of management, Deiric supports clients to develop the resilience, emotional intelligence, psychological safety and engagements of their employees.

Rhiannon Coyne

Graphite HRM

Rhiannon Coyne is a Senior HR Consultant at Graphite HRM and will be providing an overview of best practice on how to deal with complaints of bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

With a number of recent updates to employment laws, Rhiannon will take a closer look at employment equality and how it is interlinked to Health & Safety and what employers can learn from recent case laws.

David Begg

Workplace Relations Commission

David Begg was appointed Chairperson of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in January 2021.

David is also a professor at Maynooth University Institute of Social Sciences. Mr Begg’s extensive history in the trade union movement included leading the ESB Officers Association and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, stepping away from the latter in 2001 to chair international aid agency Concern.

David Begg was also previously a director of the Central Bank of Ireland between 1995 and 2010.