Unauthorized Absence: What Is It & How Can You Deal With it?

Unauthorized Absence: What Is It & How Can You Deal With it?

According to a study from CareerBuilder, year after year, the most popular months for calling in sick are December (20%), January (15%) and February (14%). If you’ve noticed an uptick in your office-based employees (or even your remote workers) messaging, emailing or phoning to say they really can’t make it to work over the past few months, these stats might have you wondering how genuine their reasons were.

Read more: Reasons Your Employees are taking Time Off Work

We know the pandemic has put a very different slant on things for the past couple of years, and while many employees don’t play the sickie game, unauthorized absence is still prevalent - and costing companies a lot of money at the same time.

And the statistics don’t end there. Shockingly, it has been claimed that 57% of Americans call in sick when they’re actually fine whilst a a study by Cold-EEZE found that:

“80 percent of people admitted - sometimes they think their coworkers are lying when they say they're too ill to come to work. And seven-percent think their coworkers are always lying.”

Scrabble tiles spelling out 'a lie has no legs'
It would seem that the distrust around ones’ coworkers calling in sick might just be rooted in reality!

So how is unauthorized absence defined?

What is unauthorized absence & how can you deal with it?

In a nutshell, unauthorized absence is when an employee doesn’t go to work, without having a genuine - and authorized - reason. In other words, they’re fine - they just fancy a day off or have something they’d rather do that day - and they fabricate an illness in order to stay home (or go out!)

wooden Pinocchio puppet with long nose indicating lying
And while for those who falsely call out sick for the day (or longer), it might seem like a harmless little stunt, in reality it can have a fairly serious knock-on effect.

The knock-on effects of unauthorized absence in the workplace

There are two main knock-on effects that occur when someone calls in sick - both when they have a valid reason and when they are faking it.

  1. Their coworkers have to pick up their slack.
  2. The HR department and/or their manager has extra admin to do.

And while this is something that can’t be helped when someone really is sick, it’s all rather annoying and unnecessarily time-consuming and stressful when someone isn’t.

woman looking at laptop with stressed facial expression

What can you do about unauthorized absences?

No company in their right mind is really okay with employees faking illnesses or emergencies in order to take a day or two off. And let’s not forget the important part here - in order to take an unwarranted day off whilst still getting paid for it. Technically speaking, that’s theft of wages…

And that could lead to disciplinary action or even termination of a contract if it’s a regular occurrence.

Now things are getting serious. Which means that as Human Resources, you need to create and implement an absence policy that clearly covers unauthorized absence.

Scrabble tiles spelling 'rules'

This should be covered in your new employee handbook, covered in your new hire onboarding checklist, and also included in employee contracts.

After all, this is not something that you want to leave open to abuse due to ‘misunderstandings’ caused by gray areas.

How to create a sickness and absence policy for your company

In your sickness or absence policy you need to plainly state the following:

  • Who an employee needs to get in touch with to report they are not well.
  • What is an acceptable way for them to report the illness: phone call, SMS, messenger app, email etc.
  • What is the latest time they must have made contact by.
  • When they estimate that they should be able to return to work.

You may also need to ask the employee for a doctor’s note depending on the circumstances.

doctor writing a note

How to enforce your sickness policy

You should find that employees who are genuinely ill will not mind in the least making contact and explaining that they are unable to work that day (either in the office or remotely). Where problems may arise is when you have to chase people who are slack about either making contact in the specified manner - or at all.

If someone is absent without warning, you should take appropriate measures to contact them and find out why they’re not at work.

Not only does this demonstrate to dishonest employees that you won’t just roll over and allow them to take unauthorized days off, but there is also the slim, but real, chance it could also be a lifesaver in the event something serious has happened to a coworker and they are not able to make contact.

young woman sitting on bed clutching her stomach
For this reason, it is important that you keep up-to-date contact information for every person in your organization in your employee database.

And if you do need to follow up with disciplinary measures, it is also crucial that you keep a record of absences, along with who tried to contact the employee, how they tried to contact them (email, SMS, call etc.) and what time the contact was attempted.

Should you punish unauthorized absences?

As HR, it is you and your managers’ call as to how you discipline unauthorized absence. A verbal warning for one absence? A writing warning for two? Three strikes and you’re out?

The important thing is to make sure that everyone is crystal clear on your policy so that they know what they can expect should they be unable to resist taking that unofficial day off.

clear crystals

Dealing with the root cause of unauthorized absences

As someone working in Human Resources, or as a manager, it would also be helpful to try and understand why people are taking unauthorized time off. Granted, there will always be people who just don’t really care about their conduct in a professional setting.

But if it’s starting to become a problem throughout your organization, it’s worth taking a closer look. Has calling in sick when they’re fine become a part of your workplace culture? Or maybe the company is going through a stressful period which is causing employees to feel burntout and anxious.

Is employee engagement at an all time low? Could you be offering more support as the HR department to your teams? These are all things well worth taking time to investigate on a deeper level.

woman and magnifying glass

Unauthorized absence: Conclusion

You probably know your employee better than most: you generally know who is absent due to genuine reasons - and who is taking advantage. But so that your business and its people aren’t being impacted by those who feel that taking a day off ‘just because they feel like it’ you do need to set transparent policies in place.

After all, if the rest of your workforce can see a handful of unscrupulous characters getting away with paid days off, what’s to say they won’t want a piece of the action too?

Eve Jones
I'm a UK-based content writer here at Hezum. I've an interest in all things HR and company culture.
United Kingdom