How do I handle job abandonment?

Job abandonment occurs whenever an employee simply disappears from work without gaining advanced permission. Put simply, the person goes AWOL (i.e., ''absent without leave''), and you're left wondering what to do. Can you terminate the person outright? Do you have to give written notice and time for the employee to respond?

Understand that there is no law that requires you to act a certain way in response to an employee s abandonment of his job. What you do is a matter of company policy and past practice. Although you have a fair amount of discretion in handling such matters, you should err on the side of caution: Pulling the plug on workers who act irresponsibly may feel good, but it s not necessarily the optimal way to respond. After all, your reputation as a fair employer may be at stake.

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It's best to provide AWOL employees with written notification that they will be terminated if they don't respond by a specific date. Here's how it works: Many companies have policies that define job abandonment as unapproved time away from work for three consecutive days. Let s assume you don t hear from an employee on Monday—a simple no-call, no-show. You'd probably call that employee at home and leave a message on the home answering machine stating your concern. (Of course, when enforcing policies of this sort, you must be sensitive to human health concerns. There is always a possibility that the employee was in an accident or may be hospitalized and unable to communicate with you.)

By Tuesday afternoon, you ll make a second phone call. In this message, inform the employee that you ll be sending an overnight FedEx or Airborne letter to the individual s home (see Appendix U for a sample letter) for a Wednesday arrival. Your voice mail message should state that if she doesn't report to work or at least call by Wednesday afternoon, you ll assume that she s abandoned her job. You ll process her termination accordingly.

What if the employee s home phone number is no longer in order? Send the letter anyway. Ditto if the letter comes back undeliverable. It s the employee s responsibility to keep you informed of address and phone number changes. If an employee fails to do that, it further demonstrates the employee s irresponsibility. Process the termination on Wednesday. The termination date should be Wednesday; most states will permit you to pay the employee only through the last day worked. In this case, you would pay the individual only through the previous Friday.

Can we terminate an employee for egregious behavior at a company party?

Absolutely! Company-sponsored functions are an extension of the company itself. Employees are responsible for holding themselves accountable for all aspects of their conduct and behavior as if they were back in the office. Unfortunately, many employees forget their manners at company picnics and holiday parties by overdrinking or otherwise making fools of themselves. They then sit back and wonder why they re being disciplined or terminated the next day because things got out of hand at a party.

Let's look at an example. A female employee at a company holiday party had way too much to drink. She then became ''overly friendly with some of her male supervisors, and her tongue made its way into a few of the gentlemen s ears. She hung all over these people, and, to their dismay and shock, anyone who tried to stop her was yelled at and groped. In short, she was out of control in public, and her behavior repulsed those who witnessed it. When the nice people from human resources came to escort her to the women s restroom, she became belligerent and pushed people away from her.

The result? She was terminated the next day for inappropriate workplace conduct. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember what happened, but the human resources folks were able to recount enough of the details that she got a pretty accurate picture before too long. Her response, interestingly enough, was defensive: ''Why should I be terminated for my behavior at a company-sponsored event? After all, I would've never acted that way in the office. Besides, you provided the alcohol! When there s an open bar, I sometimes get carried away. I'll apologize to the appropriate people for my behavior, but I want my job back!

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Does she have a point? Will an apology suffice, seeing that the company provided the alcohol? Or can an otherwise stellar employee be terminated for a one-time indiscretion, even if it occurred off company premises?

Unfortunately for her, the answer is that employees may be terminated for one-time indiscretions that occur off company premises. First, remember that sexual harassment may exist when workers are exposed to unwanted and offensive behavior of a sexual nature or with sexual overtones. This employee s behavior may be considered serious enough to cross the threshold of harassment in the company s interpretation. At the very least, such behavior could be considered a breach of company policy or of the organization s standards of performance and conduct.

Second, remember that your treatment of an egregious situation like this may create a precedent in terms of how you handle future actions. People tend to remember incidents like this for years to come; if the employee was not discharged, it may be more difficult to discharge workers in the future for similar egregious misconduct.

Finally, remember that at any type of company-sponsored party, your organization can be held liable for employees actions during the party as well as for any injuries incurred (yes, that could even mean a workers compensation claim in certain states). As a result, you might want to incorporate the following suggestions into your holiday party or picnic plans:

- Distribute a memo before the party reminding employees that appropriate workplace conduct standards will be maintained at all times. Employees are to act responsibly, and excessive drinking or other inappropriate behavior could result in disciplinary action or dismissal. In addition, confirm that attendance at the social event is voluntary.

- Use professional bartenders when serving alcohol. Instead of having an open bar, provide ''ticket bars where employees are given coupons, and establish a drink limit per individual. Instruct managers and supervisors that they are not to buy drinks for their employees under any circumstances.

- Collect employees' car keys at the beginning of the party, and stop serving alcohol early. Distribute car keys at the end of the party after you ve ensured that employees or their family members are sober. (This could be seen as draconian, so discuss this as part of your celebration planning.)

- Offer a wide variety of nonalcoholic beverages, and offer protein-rich foods that slow the body s absorption of alcohol.

- Instruct volunteer spotters and designated drivers to monitor the party and, if necessary, to drive intoxicated employees home.

- Arrange for taxis or other public transportation, or book a block of rooms in a convenient hotel for anyone whose functioning may be impaired by alcohol.

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