HR Expert: What to do when an employee is delayed returning from annual leave

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My client has an employee who has been on holiday for the last two weeks and are expected back in the next couple of days. However, their colleagues have seen on Facebook that their flight was cancelled, and it seems they now have no way of getting home, at least not in time for when they are expected back to work. What steps does my client need to take, especially considering that the employee hasn’t actually got in touch?

Employees who will miss their first day back at work because flight delays are affecting their return journey have a responsibility to get in touch with their employer to let them know they won’t be back in work as planned. Normal absence notification procedures should be followed, although usually it would be helpful for employees to get in touch with their employer as soon as they know that they will not be back in time for work, to give as much notice as possible for alternative arrangements to be made. The fact that you client’s employee has been able to post about this on Facebook suggests they have the means to communicate – let’s face it, these days, almost everyone has a mobile phone so there shouldn’t really be an issue with them getting in touch quickly, and it’s understandable if your client is concerned that the employee hasn’t done so yet.

If the employee does not get in touch, your client should consider initially marking this absence down as unauthorised until they confirmed why they are/were not in (depending on when your client is able to speak to them). If normal absence notification procedures have not been followed, your client should investigate to find out why. It may be that the timings of their delayed flight meant they were unable to get in touch when they should have, so it’s important that they keep an open mind here.

It is likely that the employee’s absence will last only one or two days, but on the employees return your client should try to come to an agreement over how to categorise the absence; eg agree that more annual leave is taken or that the employee could use up some time banked in lieu. In both of these cases, pay will not be affected. If no other arrangement can be made, unpaid leave is likely to be the most appropriate option. Although the employee is not in control of their circumstances, there is no legal obligation to pay employees who are absent for this reason unless their contract contains a provision to the contrary.

Unauthorised absence can be a reason for dismissal but, where an employee has at least two years’ service, dismissals need to be reasonable and meet procedural requirements. Dismissal for absence caused by a flight delay is likely to be unreasonable if the employee has a clean disciplinary record, but each case will turn on its facts. If your client chooses to pursue this route, they should be careful to ensure that no dismissal is discriminatory.

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