Dealing With Absenteeism & Desertion

There are various principle obligations an employee needs to comply with in accordance with the contract of employment with regards to absenteeism and desertion.

One such obligation is to render services to the employer from the agreed upon date and for the stipulated duration of the contract.

In terms of this obligation the employee must be available at the workplace during the times specified in the contract.



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Taking The Appropriate Steps

Any unauthorized absence from work during working hours will constitute either absenteeism or desertion.

Determining factors in establishing whether a period of absence from the workplace will constitute absenteeism or desertion are: the length the absence, the reason for the absence and also the intention of the employee.

Desertion is a common law principle and takes place when an employee leaves the place of work without the intention of returning.

It is sometimes difficult to establish the employee’s state of mind, which is one of the difficulties employer’s might face in attempting to establish whether an employee has deserted.

Be that as it may, desertion constitutes a breach of contract by the employee.

The employer may accept this breach and regard the employment relationship as having ended.  

In absenteeism, the employee’s intentions are to return to work at some stage.

When charging an employee with absenteeism, the intention of the employee is of prime importance.

Unless management can show that the employee had no intention of returning to work at all, the employee would have to be charged with absenteeism and not with desertion.


When considering the circumstances surrounding the absence, some of the factors that need to be taken into account, are as follows:

  • Did the employee make any attempt to contact management?
  • How did fellow employees view the employee’s intentions?
  • What were the replies of the employee’s family to questions about his or her whereabouts?
  • Did the employee seek alternative employment?


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The seriousness of absenteeism depends primarily on the length and reason for the absence, and on the nature of the employee’s job, which would indicate the actual or potential effect of such absence on the business.

As a general rule, the longer the period of absence, the more serious it becomes.

This means that absenteeism could result in dismissal, based on the principle that no employer can be expected to maintain an employment relationship with an employee who is absent from work for an unreasonable period of time.

In this regard, it is advisable to have a policy that states that any employee, who has been away for a specified period (usually three to five days) without communicating with management, may render themselves liable for dismissal.

It should however be stressed that only exceptional circumstances would justify dismissal as an appropriate sanction for absenteeism.

If the effect of an employee’s absence from work has caused the organization to suffer undue losses or jeopardized the jobs of other employees, dismissal would, in all probability, be appropriate.



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The Correct Procedures Should Be Followed

The employer must take reasonable steps to find out what has happened to an employee where the employee is absent without permission and without notification to the employer.

The following procedure should be followed:

  • A registered letter or e-mail should be sent to inform the employee that his or her conduct amounts to desertion and that a hearing will be held.
  • Should the employee fail to attend the hearing, a second communication is sent to inform the employee of a second and final date for a disciplinary hearing.
  • Should the employee fail to respond to the second communication, the hearing will be held in the employee’s absence. A third and final communication will be sent confirming the findings and ruling of the hearing (in this case, dismissal).
  • Should the employee return after the first or second communication, the employer should hold a hearing to provide an opportunity for the employee to explain his or her behaviour (this will ensure compliance with the audi alteram partem rule).
  • Should the employee who has been found guilty of desertion and dismissed, return to work sometime after the final communication and subsequent hearing, the employer should cover itself by holding a hearing to give the employee an opportunity to explain his or her behaviour. This is not obligatory, but is a way of mitigating risk.

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Circumstances surrounding absenteeism and desertion may vary which brings numerous variables into play.

Employers dealing with absenteeism and desertion, as with any corrective action, must follow fair procedure.

It is therefore recommended that employers obtain the necessary expertise to minimize the potential risk associated with procedural unfairness, and take the relevant circumstances into account when considering cases of absenteeism and desertion.



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