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When an employee stops coming to work, do we have to formally fire them?

A reader writes:

I’m the only HR person in a high turnover construction-related business. Prior to me, the supervisors handled (or didn’t, is more like it) all their hiring and firing themselves. We often have people quit showing up for work, and in the past supervisors would just never contact them with their next report time/location rather than explicitly fire them. They would also ignore any phone calls if the person tried to reach them. The phrase they’ve used with me is “we kind of let them…go away.”

I don’t like the idea of leaving someone hanging there without a clear termination, so I’ve been making phone calls to these individuals to let them know we are letting them go. Is there a better way to handle this?

I’ve sent a letter a few times, but that delays the news by a couple days and I’m concerned about someone trying to come back after they’ve abandoned the job (it’s happened–they pretend like they were never gone) and I’d rather tell them immediately that we are letting them go than risk them showing up again, especially showing up on a jobsite where we would be liable if they present themselves as our employee and we haven’t formally terminated that employment. Do you have any other ideas? Or is a phone call the best answer in these situations?

I understand that in a business where no-shows are common, it’s easy to assume the person peaced out, but one day one of those people is going to have been a no-show because they’re in a hospital bed somewhere or something else has gone terribly wrong.

So yes, you should call. If you don’t reach them, leave a message saying, “You didn’t show up for work today. We hope everything is okay. Please get in touch with us as soon as possible. If we don’t hear from you by X, we’ll assume you’re not returning.” Then, if you don’t hear from them by X, make another call confirming that you’re terminating their employment. (You can also follow this up with a letter if you want to, although I tend to think simply documenting the phone calls is sufficient.)

If you’re worried this policy will open the door to people no-showing but then calling you later to save their jobs, there’s no requirement that you take them back at that point. But at least this will allow you to make an exception if it does turn out that someone was hit by a bus or something.

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