• How to handle an employee who fails to turn up for work

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  • 17 Mar 2016
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What should employers do when faced with ‘ghosting’?

The phenomenon of ‘ghosting’ is on the increase in an employment context. The term started its life in the online dating sphere to describe the situation in which one person in a relationship is ‘dumped’ through a sudden cut-off of all communication without explanation from the other one.

It transitioned its way into the recruitment field to describe circumstances where a job candidate is left hanging by a recruiter or potential employer after making a job application. It is now being used to describe an employee who decides to leave his or her job by no longer turning up. The employer is not given notice of the employee’s intentions and instead the employee simply disappears from the workplace.

In an ideal situation, an employer will have effective absence policies which will immediately identify when an employee has failed to attend work without explanation. Most sickness absence policies require employees to notify their employer if they are absent due to illness as soon as possible on the first day they are unable to attend work. Employers and their HR teams should ensure that up-to-date contact details for employees are retained, so they can try to establish the status of an employee who has failed to attend work and hasn’t notified his or her line manager about their absence and the reason for it.

If an absent employee does not respond to attempts to contact him or her, and the organisation is unable to establish that the absence is for legitimate reasons, the employer should act without delay to manage the situation. A failure by an employee to attend work without good reason is likely to be a breach of both the express and implied terms of the employee’s employment contract, and entitles the employer to treat that person’s employment as at an end. There will be no need to take any disciplinary action - and no practical purpose in doing so. The employee will not be entitled to his or her notice pay but will be entitled to be paid normal remuneration for the period up to the last date of employment.

It is theoretically possible for an employer to sue an employee for such a breach of contract, but this rarely occurs unless the circumstances of the employee’s departure involve theft, fraud or breach of post-termination restrictions, and the employer wants to make a point of principle or protect a business interest. An employer might also sue an employee where an employer has had to spend money, for example, on hiring temporary cover for the employee’s role while a replacement is found. However, the cost and time this takes does not usually make such actions viable, particularly if the employee does not have the financial resources to pay in the event that a court judgment is made against him or her.

The employer may prefer to fall back instead on any provisions in the employment contract relating to lawful deductions from wages for sums owed it on termination of employment, although the contract provisions would have to be suitably drafted to allow for the deduction in question.

Perhaps more concerning is whether there is an issue in the workplace that has caused the employee to ‘ghost’. Employers should ensure they have clear policies and provide training for staff on workplace behaviour - in particular on equal opportunities, bullying and harassment -so that ghosting is not a tempting option for employees. Appraisal processes should provide a regular opportunity for managers and employees to discuss career aspirations so that employees do not feel disengaged or demotivated. Employees should also be told about, and understand, the avenues available to them if they wish to raise concerns or a complaint, including formally through the employer’s grievance procedure.

So, while an employer cannot prevent ghosting occurring, it should ensure that not only is it able to deal with the aftermath of it, but that the organisation also addresses any underlying causes for it within the business.

Sarah Ozanne is an employment partner with CMS Cameron McKenna LLP

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  • I think it's an extremely risky step to dismiss someone without following any procedure. The following from the advice above could lead to an unfair dismissal claim:

    "A failure by an employee to attend work without good reason is likely to be a breach of both the express and implied terms of the employee’s employment contract, and entitles the employer to treat that person’s employment as at an end. There will be no need to take any disciplinary action - and no practical purpose in doing so"

    What if the employee was in hospital, detained or similar? A reasonable employer would not dismiss without notice or procedure.