May 13, 2019

HR Dilemma: When an employee has abandoned their employment

One of the biggest HR dilemmas a business owner can face – one day an employee is working away in your business and the next day, they’re gone. What can you, as an employer or manager, do about it? Or, how do you know that someone has abandoned their employment?

Abandonment of employment is a HR grey area. It’s hard to tell what’s actually happening and whether the employee intends to return back to work. So, what do you need to be looking out for behaviourally? It often begins with a workplace incident or grievance, or a noticeable change in their attitude to work. Then there’s a series of vague phone or text messages about being sick. When you try to call back, there’s no response. When you leave a message asking for a doctor’s certificate to be forwarded, none is provided and when you contact their next of kin, there’s also no response. It’s like they’ve suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. As a compassionate employer, this can be very troubling. How do you know if they’re even okay?

You need to be systematic

You’re right to call and you’re right to call more than once. In fact, I recommend telephoning the employee each day for three days straight. In addition to this, I recommend taking it further and communicate with the employee via email, just in case there is a reason why they may not be answering their phone.

What to say when you think someone may have abandoned their employment

Whenever you communicate, be concerned but concrete. Make sure they know you’re genuinely concerned for their welfare, as well as what may be required of them. If you are genuinely worried about what’s happened, I would even let them know you intend to call the police to report them missing. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend then writing a formal letter, detailing your attempts to contact them and what you intend to do. I would also advise letting them know that if they don’t respond by a certain date (usually two weeks after they were last in at work) you intend to treat the situation as one where they have chosen to abandon their employment so that the employment relationship will no longer stand. This is usually enough to get at least some kind of response.

And if they still don’t show

Follow through by contacting the police if you need to. Then, if you think they’re not actually missing, wait until your deadline has come and gone. If you haven’t heard from your employee, then it’s time to terminate. Send a letter via both email and post, advising them that their employment has ended. When you do, you will have to pay them for any outstanding annual or long-service leave entitlement. However, you’re not required to pay out any sick leave, nor are you required to pay any salary in lieu of notice. Their actions mean they were the ones who pulled the trigger and the day they left work they effectively resigned.

What do you do if you hear from them?

If your attempts to elicit a response actually prove fruitful, it can settle your mind that they’re okay. However, from an HR process perspective, it can still be complicated and problematic. For instance, the absence may be due to domestic violence, in which case it’s your duty to support your staff member. Alternatively, you may have uncovered a serious physical or mental illness in which case you may find the employee requires time off, or that their pattern of work changes so that they’re in and out of the office. In this case, you really can’t – and shouldn’t – terminate their employment. Instead, look into a return to work plan, or a period of modified duties, to see how you can make it workable for them and for the business. Finally, you may find that the worker agrees to return but provides zero explanation for what they did and why they did it. When this occurs, you can give them a formal warning. You’re not usually obliged to pay them for time spent out of the office.

Always remember

As with all human resources issues, the two most important things to remember are, always to follow your written policies and to communicate clearly. If you need help formulating policies for your workplace, or you need assistance dealing with an employee who you think may have abandoned their employment, get in touch today.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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