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HR 101 – Desertion and the AWOL Employee – Part 1

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Please note that this pertains to South African Labour and Best Practice requirements.

It would appear that there is much confusion around this topic and also what the difference between the two is.

Let’s take it one step at a time.

AWOL (Absent Without Leave) is exactly that. It usually pertains to the employee who does not come to work and then does not phone in to advise why they are not at work. They could be away for one day or they could be away for several days, but they usually come back to work with some or other long story as to why they were not at work and why they could not phone in. Your leave policy should have a procedure to deal with this and the consequences for the ‘missing’ employee.

Desertion is when an employee just walks off the job or does not come into work at all and who has in all probability gotten themselves another form of employment and therefore has no intention of coming back, but just ‘forgot’ to tell anyone.

Both of these carry consequences and these consequences can lead to their dismissal.

So let’s bring in my favourite protagonists. Mike owns a retail store in a busy mall and George is the store manager. Sarah is a sales consultant in Mike’s retail store and she reports to George. Jane is the head of the HR department.

One Monday morning during the December rush, at about 09h30, Mike received a call from Sarah advising that George had not arrived for work and that all the staff were standing outside the door, together with clients, as they were unable to enter the premises. Sarah further stated that she had tried to contact George and that his cell phone went directly to voice mail.

Understandably annoyed, Mike instructed Sarah to wait at the store with the rest of the staff as he was on his way. Mike contacted Jane and instructed her to try and get hold of George and briefly explained the situation. Mike requested and received the spare keys to the store and made his way to the store.

Mike got the store started and then appointed Sarah as acting Manager until such time as they could ascertain what had happened to George.

Jane in the meantime had also tried to contact George on his cell phone but the phone went directly to voice mail. Jane then tried to contact George on his home number, this also went to voice mail. Jane then tried to contact George’s wife and that phone also went directly to voice mail. Messages were now left on all three phones.

Nothing was heard from either George or his wife during the course of the day and Sarah managed the store and closed up in compliance with laid down procedures, in George’s absence.

That evening, Mike again attempted to contact George and his wife, to no avail. Mike left messages on all the phones again.

The following day, Mike instructed Jane to try and contact Mike and his wife again. Again Jane could not get through and again messages were left on all of the phones. Jane noted all of this in George’s personnel file. Nothing was heard from George or his wife during the course of the second day that he was absent from work.

On the third day, Jane again tried to contact George and his wife, again without any success. Again nothing was heard from George or his wife.

By the fifth day, having still not heard from either George or his wife, Mike made the decision to follow the correct procedures in sending a registered letter and a telegram to George’s home address instructing him to return to work. Again no response was forthcoming and a disciplinary was held in abstentia and George was found guilty of desertion and dismissed.

In this particular instance George never returned to work and Mike never found out why he left. It was rumoured from time to time, by the staff that George had been seen working somewhere else, so it was clear to Mike that George felt that he could not face Mike and hand in his resignation and he had just decided to leave. The matter was closed.

Next time we will look at some additional examples of desertion and AWOL.