Excused vs unexcused absences from work and how to handle them

Managing employee absenteeism can be a real headache for managers and human resources staff. Especially during this time of year when people are using extra vacation time to travel home for the holiday or calling out sick more frequently due to cold and flu season. Keeping track of all of these absences, and remembering which ones have been approved, takes work.

That’s why this is a great time to refresh your understanding of the different types of employee absences and the specific scenarios that constitute an unexcused absence at work. Explore some examples of excused and unexcused absences so that you can properly record your employees’ absences.

Types of employee absences

There are generally three types of absences; unexcused absences, excused absences, and no-fault absences.

Unexcused absences vs excused absences

Unexcused work absences are typically defined as absences that have not been approved by the employee’s supervisor, manager, or the HR department. Inversely, excused absences are those that have received approval.

Some absences cannot be planned for or scheduled in advance in order to receive prior approval. For example, sick days, time off to take care of a child who needs to stay home sick from school, or bereavement leave for a sudden death in the family. However, these absences can typically be excused as long as the employee gives as much notice of the upcoming absence as they can and follows the proper call-out procedures.

No-fault absences

The third category is no-fault absences. This is an absence management approach where all absences are treated equally, rather than being categorized as unexcused and excused. This may seem like an easier approach from the employer’s perspective, as you won’t have to worry about verifying the reason for employee absences. However, no-fault attendance policies actually tend to create more problems than they solve for employers.

No-fault attendance management approaches have gotten some employers into hot water legally. This is because there are a large number of legally protected leave types such as military leave and FMLA leave, and employers may not take adverse employment action against employees who use these leave types. Employers that use no-fault point systems for attendance often violate this requirement and may end up with wrongful termination lawsuits or other complaints.

Examples of excused absences at work

There are many different types of absences that tend to count as excused absences under most companies’ policies.

Vacation days

Vacations should count as excused absences as long as employees have followed the proper PTO request process and obtained approval for their requested vacation dates. Last-minute personal days (not due to emergency or illness), or an employee’s choice to not show up when their vacation request has been denied may be considered unexcused absences.

Jury duty

Employees can’t control when they are called for jury duty, and you have a legal obligation to grant them time off when they are summoned. Therefore, jury duty should always be considered an excused absence, though it is a good idea to include a policy in your employee handbook alerting employees of their right to time off and stating that they should give you advanced notice of their need for time off when they receive a jury summons.


Requirements vary by state and local laws, but many employees are required to give employees time off to vote. This is typically offered as a partial-day absence so that employees may get to the polls and cast their votes during the day. This absence should be excused as long as employees use the time for it’s intended purpose and do not extend far beyond the allowed time off (ie. they shouldn’t leave four hours early if the state law and company policy allows for two hours off to vote).

FMLA leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that allows eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of job-protected unpaid leave within a 12-month period. This leave balance can be taken in one long leave period or broken up and taken as intermittent leave. FMLA leave can only be used for specific family or medical reasons such as:.

  • The birth of a child, adoption, or foster placement of a child.

  • Taking time off while incapacitated by a serious health condition or while receiving medical treatment for a qualifying condition.

  • Caring for a family member with a serious health condition.

  • Any qualifying exigency arising out of the employee’s spouse, child, or parent’s “covered active duty” military service.

Military leave

Military leave and military caregiver leave are federally protected job absences, so you will certainly need to count these as excused absences and follow other requirements to comply with the applicable laws.

ADA accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law designed to provide equal rights and access for people with disabilities. Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, which may include additional unpaid leave or scheduling accommodations. If an employee requests unpaid leave or changes to their schedule and it is approved by the human resources team or employer, managers should count authorized ADA-related absences as excused.

Examples of unexcused absences at work

Here are some employee absences that are generally counted as unexcused absences.

No call no shows

No-call no-shows are employee absences where an employee does not call out or alert their employer that they will be absent. These absences are particularly disruptive to the company and often warrant disciplinary action. Sometimes these uncommunicated absences are due to a genuine emergency, but other times they are just the result of carelessness or poor communication.

Employees who no-call, no-show due to a genuine emergency should have their absence excused as long as there is some verification or documentation such as proof of hospitalization, a police report showing that they were in an accident or the victim of a crime, etc.

Improperly requested time off

If an employee knows in advance that they will need to be absent but does not follow the proper request process to get the time off approved, that may count as an unexcused absence. For example, employees should be seeking time off approval in advance for pre-scheduled activities such as family events, medical appointments (other than last-minute and/or urgent appointments), or vacations. If employees are calling out on short notice in place of requesting time off, or when specific vacation time has been denied, that may be counted as an unexcused absence.

Unapproved partial-day absences

Leaving early or coming in late without obtaining approval is a common form of unexcused absences. While not a full-day absence, most employers do require that employees obtain approval or alert their supervisor if they will need to delay their start time or leave their shift early. Significant tardiness or an unapproved half-day can count toward an employee’s unexcused absences.

FMLA misuse

Occasionally, employees will misuse their FMLA leave, resulting in unexcused absences. This can occur in a number of ways. For example, employees that can reasonably foresee their need for FMLA leave (such as those using leave for a scheduled surgery) are required to provide 30 days notice to their employer, or at least as much notice as they can. Failing to properly give notice or to properly go through the FMLA certification process to the best of their ability may result in unauthorized absences.

The other more serious form of FMLA misuse occurs when an employee uses FMLA leave for unapproved purposes. Any FMLA-related absences, including intermittent leave, must be used in connection with the specific serious health condition or family member caregiving responsibilities listed on their FMLA medical certification form. If an employee requests time off as part of FMLA when they are really absent for another reason (such as a concert, common cold unrelated to their FMLA case, or a hangover), this is FMLA misuse and can be considered an unexcused absence.

Does sick leave count as an unexcused absence?

Sick days typically can not be requested and approved in advance, but employers generally do consider sick leave as an approved absence. However, there is some nuance here as sick leave can be misused by employees.

Sick leave is meant to provide time off for employees who are ill or are otherwise in need of time off to rest and recuperate in relation to a health issue. This does include taking mental health days if an employee is suffering from burnout, excessive stress, anxiety, depression, or any other mental health challenges. However, sick leave typically isn’t meant to be used for hangovers or fatigue from coming home late from a social event the previous night. Employees who are frequently calling out on Mondays, Fridays, or the day after a holiday may be misusing their sick leave.

It’s generally best to consider sick days as excused absences as long as they follow your company’s employee sick leave policy. Employees who do not follow sick day call-out procedures may have their absences considered unexcused. This also typically applies to team members who use up their sick leave balance and continue to call out regularly without qualifying for FMLA, ADA, or short-term disability leave.

You may also want to institute some guidelines for excusing extended sick leave. For example, many employers require a doctor’s note if an employee calls out sick for three or more consecutive days. Though state laws can vary, so double check any limitations that your state or local laws may place on requiring medical notes for absences.

Minimize unexcused absences at work by creating a clear attendance policy

Ensuring that employees know how to properly request time off will help cut down on last-minute, unexcused absences. It’s important to have an easily accessible attendance policy and set of time off procedures available to all employees. Consider including these items in your employee handbook and making a copy available digitally in your employee’s shared workspaces.

Since unplanned absences are one of the largest sources of unexcused absences, you’ll want to be particularly detailed with these. To minimize disruption to the business and provide clear expectations for employees, it’s helpful to have clear, written guidelines on how they should call out of work if they are sick or have an unforeseen matter to attend to. Each employee should know exactly who to contact, the preferred method of contact, and any guidelines regarding time windows (ie. should they reach out to their manager’s personal cell phone in the morning or wait until the work day has started to call into the office).

Make sure that these policies are reviewed and updated regularly to prevent any confusion or uncertainty for employees.