One fine Tuesday morning, George doesn’t show up for work. There’s no phone call, email or text message to advise he won’t be in so by 10:30 am, you try contacting him. There’s no answer so you leave a message. You also try calling his next of kin as advised on his HR file but they don’t respond either. Further attempts are made over the course of the next three days to contact George but you still don’t know where he is or if he is coming back. You have a business to run and you need people to either show up for their rostered hours or advise that they need to utilise some of their personal leave. So what can you do?
What is abandonment of employment?
Abandonment of employment is a form of termination of employment initiated by the employee that occurs when an employee does not attend work for an extended period without prior notice or reasonable explanation. Before you simply clear out George’s desk and employ someone else, there are a number of things you need to do to ensure you aren’t exposed to an unfair dismissal claim.
1. Make Contact
You must make a reasonable effort to make contact with an employee that doesn’t show up for work. Try calling, emailing, text messaging. No response? Try their emergency contacts that you should have listed on their HR file. This is an absolute must. If you don’t make reasonable effort to contact an employee who seems to have gone missing in action, and you terminate their employment, you are opening yourself up to the prospect of an unfair dismissal claim. You may find that your employee is incapacitated and unable to contact you so the emergency contacts are a vital part of the process and may clear up the mystery of the disappearance very easily.
2. Determine Intent
You make contact - now what? You need to determine whether or not there is a valid reason for the unexplained absence and if not, you will need to advise them of the implications of their continued unauthorised absence. And those consequences are simple, it will be considered abandonment of employment and in most cases, if they have not returned within a specified period of time, you can move to terminate them. At HR Staff n’ Staff, we would recommend you follow up with a written communication in the form of a registered letter that provides proof of receipt also allowing you to demonstrate contact was made and the opportunity to respond was provided.
Determining intent is really important as any claims that go before a court or industrial tribunal will focus on this in order to resolve the case. For example, a team member doesn’t show up for work and you eventually discover that they were hit by a car, they are in hospital and not in any condition to make phone calls but will ultimately recover. Clearly their intent was not to abandon their job – it was something that was out of their control and you will get hit with an unfair dismissal claim if you proceed with termination as a result of abandonment as there are mitigating facts. A phone call to an emergency contact would have enlightened you as to the situation and would allow you to avoid a nasty situation.
If you can’t make contact despite every effort being made, best practice is to outline the situation in a letter. Confirm that they have been absent and the amount of time they have not attended work. Ask them to provide an explanation and advise that you will assume they have abandoned their employment if they do not respond within a specified time frame. Again, you need to deliver this in a manner that provides confirmation of receipt so registered post may be the best option. In this day and age an email may also suffice, but only where you have the ability to track email delivery and read receipts. If you know for sure that they have received your correspondence and they still have not responded in the designated time, you can proceed with termination.
Recent Court Decision
A recent court decision - Boguslaw Bienias v Iplex Pipelines Australia Pty Ltd – resulted in the determination that the termination of an employee does not simply occur because the employer has deemed them to have abandoned their employment. An employer, after following due process in terms of contacting and communicating the employee, can deem an employee to have abandoned their employment but they must then follow up by specifically actioning the termination as well. That is, they must follow a process to finalise the employment with the paperwork that would occur with any other type of employee termination.
So what happens with George?
Given you have made reasonable efforts to contact George, send out a registered letter outlining the situation and the consequences. Set a time frame for response. If he doesn’t get back to you and you are absolutely sure he is in receipt of your letter, then go ahead and commence the termination on the basis of abandonment.
To avoid confusion and possible legal wrangles, we have the following recommendations:
This can all seem quite onerous on the employer, but the more effort you make to follow some reasonable steps, the more you are actively protecting your business. While the outlines above may seen lengthy, in reality this could all occur in under a week.
If you are in any way unsure of your rights as an employer to terminate an employee who has not shown up for work, please call us at HR Staff n’ Stuff as we are here to help.
The HR Staff n' Stuff team all contribute to our blogs. Enjoy the read!