Absenteeism: The Difference Between Incapacity Versus Misconduct?

Absenteeism can be treated as misconduct or incapacity, depending on the circumstances surrounding the absenteeism. Before delving into the difference, it is important to distinguish between authorised and unauthorised absenteeism.

Authorised absenteeism is when an employee is absent from work and has either taken some sort of leave which has been pre-approved, such as annual or family responsibility leave, or the employee has a legitimate reason for being absent which the employer accepts such as sick leave. Unauthorised absenteeism is when the employee is absent from work and either does not have approved leave or the reasons provided by the employee for his or her absence, such as being ill, are not accepted by the employer. For example, an employer may request that an employee provide a medical certificate for an absence related to illness and, in the event that the employee fails to provide a medical certificate, the employer may treat the absence as unauthorised as the employee has not provided proof of his or her alleged incapacity.

Incapacity related to health is understood as the inability to tender one’s service as a result of ill-health or injury. When the incapacity of an employee is being considered, the employer will question whether or not the employment relationship can continue given the employee’s ill-health. Absenteeism comes into play in the incapacity sense when an employee is either absent for a prolonged period of time or the employee is frequently absent. You may have an employee who needs to undergo brain surgery and will be unable to tender his or her services for three or six months. In this case, the employer would evaluate means of accommodating this employee’s absence as per Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1996 (“LRA”) titled the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal (hereinafter “the Code”). These types of examples regarding incapacity are a bit easier to handle than the employee who is frequently absent but without one cause or a defined period during which the employee may need to recover.

When an employee is frequently absent, the employer can either treat this as misconduct or incapacity. If the employee is habitually absent on perhaps either side of a weekend or after payday, this may be indicative that the employee is electing to absent him or herself and that the employee is not genuinely incapacitated. In these set of circumstances, it may be more appropriate to treat the absence as misconduct. If the employee is frequently absent but produces medical certificates on every occasion and/or there is no obvious pattern to the absenteeism or any other reason for the employer to doubt the legitimacy of the absenteeism, then the absence may be treated along the lines of incapacity rather than misconduct. This is particularly the case if the employee has exhausted his or sick leave or is using his or her sick leave at a rapid rate.

If addressing absenteeism as misconduct, employers should apply the principle of progressive discipline, warning the employee that his or absences are unauthorised. If addressing absenteeism as incapacity, the key is for employer to counsel employees in an attempt to establish what the cause of the frequent absenteeism may be and to then evaluate how the employer can accommodate the employee, depending on his or her needs.

Absenteeism may be a simple issue but, given that it can be treated as either misconduct or incapacity, it is often not handled in the correct manner, resulting in risk to employers. You should therefore always seek advice if you are unsure as to how to handle absenteeism issues.