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 correctly record your employees’ absences.

Types of employee absences

There are generally three types of absences: excused, unexcused, 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, like sick days, time off to care for a sick child, or bereavement leave for a sudden death, cannot be planned or scheduled in advance. However, employers can typically excuse these absences as long as the employee provides as much notice as possible and follows the proper call-out procedures.

No-fault absences

The third category is no-fault absences. This absence management approach treats all absences equally rather than categorizing them as unexcused or excused. This may seem more straightforward from the employer’s perspective, as you won’t have to worry about verifying the reason for employee absences. However, no-fault attendance policies tend to create more problems than they solve for employers.

No-fault attendance management approaches have gotten some employers into legal trouble. This is because many legally protected leave types exist, such as military leave and FMLA leave, and employers may not take adverse employment action against employees who use these 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 cannot control when they are called for jury duty, and employers have a legal obligation to grant them time off when summoned. Therefore, employers should always consider jury duty an excused absence. However, it’s wise for employers to include a policy in their employee handbook alerting employees of their right to time off and stating that they should give advance notice of their need for time off when they receive a jury summons.


State and local laws vary, but many require employers to give employees time off to vote. Employers typically offer this as a partial-day absence, allowing employees to get to the polls and cast their votes during the day. As long as employees use the time for its intended purpose and do not extend it far beyond the allowed time off (e.g., they shouldn’t leave four hours early if the state law and company policy allows for two hours off to vote), employers should excuse this absence.

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, requiring employers to count them as excused absences. To comply with applicable laws, employers must also adhere to additional requirements regarding these leave types.

ADA accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law, provides 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 the human resources team or employer approves it, managers should excuse authorized ADA-related absences.

Examples of unexcused absences at work

Here are some employee absences that employers generally count as unexcused.

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.

In genuine emergencies resulting in a no-call or no-show, employees should provide verification or documentation, such as proof of hospitalization or a police report, to have their absence excused. This ensures a fair and understanding approach while balancing the need for accountability.

Improperly requested time off

If employees know they need time off in advance for pre-scheduled activities like family events, non-urgent medical appointments, or vacations, but they fail to follow the proper request and approval process, employers may consider their absence unexcused. In essence, employers might not excuse absences that employees could have reasonably requested beforehand.

If employees call out on short notice instead of requesting time off, or if their specific vacation time request is denied, employers may count it as an unexcused absence.

Unapproved partial-day absences

Leaving early or coming in late without obtaining approval is a common form of unexcused absences. Although not a full-day absence, leaving early or arriving late usually requires employee notification and supervisor approval. This helps maintain workplace efficiency and ensures adequate staffing levels. 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. FMLA misuse can occur in various ways. Employees planning foreseeable FMLA leave, like for a scheduled surgery, must provide their employer with 30 days’ notice or the maximum feasible notice. Failing to do so, or not completing the FMLA certification process diligently, could lead to unauthorized absences and potential consequences. Remember, open communication and adherence to procedures are crucial for a smooth FMLA leave process. This means employees are not protected under FMLA. They may face disciplinary action.

The other more serious form of FMLA misuse occurs when an employee uses FMLA leave for unapproved purposes. FMLA-related absences, including intermittent leave, are exclusively for the specific health conditions. Also, they include family caregiving duties outlined in the employee’s FMLA medical certification. Unauthorized use of FMLA leave can result in disciplinary action, including termination of employment.

Employees should consult their HR department or a legal professional if they have any questions regarding appropriate FMLA usage. Remember, using FMLA leave for reasons beyond those approved may violate FMLA regulations. Misusing FMLA leave for unrelated reasons can have serious consequences for the employee.

Suppose an employee requests time off as part of FMLA when they are really absent for another reason. Such as a concert, a common cold unrelated to their FMLA case, or a hangover. In that case, this constitutes FMLA misuse and employers can consider it an unexcused absence.

Does sick leave count as an unexcused absence?

Employees typically cannot request and receive approval for sick days in advance but employers generally do consider sick leave as an approved absence. However, employees can sometimes misuse sick leave.

Employers offer sick leave to support employees facing illness or needing recovery time for health concerns. This encompasses mental health days for managing burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. By utilizing sick leave, employees prioritize their well-being, allowing them to return to work feeling refreshed and ready to contribute effectively. Ultimately, sick leave is a valuable resource for both employees and employers, fostering a healthier and more productive work environment.

Employers typically intend sick leave for genuine illness or health-related needs, not for hangovers or social fatigue. However, employees may misuse sick leave for these reasons. Frequent absences on Mondays, Fridays, or the day after a holiday can indicate such misuse.

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. Typically, this 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. State and local laws can vary, so double-check any limitations they 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 a major source of unexcused absences, you should provide exceptionally detailed information about them.

Clear, written guidelines on how to call out of work can minimize disruption to the business. These guidelines also provide clear expectations for employees who are sick or have unforeseen matters to attend to.

Each employee should know exactly who to contact, the preferred method of contact, and any guidelines regarding time windows. For example, they should reach out to their manager’s personal cell phone in the morning. Another option is to wait until the work day has started to call into the office.

Make sure to review and update these policies regularly to prevent any confusion or uncertainty for employees.

More Resources:

Doctors note for work: What employers need & how to get one
How to define and address excessive absenteeism at work
Employee requests stress leave from work: What you need to know