When it comes to absenteeism and desertion, one of the principal obligations of an employee to a contract of employment is to render his / her services to the employer, from the agreed date and for the duration of the contract. This obligation requires that the employee present himself/herself at his / her place of work during the times specified in the contract.

Any unauthorized absence (no medical certificate or acceptable reason provided) from work during the specified working hours, if continuous, and depending on the circumstances of the absence, will constitute either absenteeism or desertion. The elements which will influence whether a period of absence from the workplace will constitute absenteeism or desertion are:

The length of and reason for the absence, and
The intention of the employee (by considering the circumstances surrounding the absence):

– Was an attempt made to contact management?
– Was alternate employment sought?
– What did fellow employees feel was his/ her intention?
– What did his / her family say to questions on the whereabouts of that employee?

absenteeism and desertion

Difference between Absenteeism and Desertion:

(a) Absenteeism

With absenteeism, the intention of the employee is to at some stage return to his/ her place employment. The seriousness of absenteeism will depend primarily on two factors:

• The length AND reason for the absence, and
• The nature of the job being done by the employee (translated into the actual or potential effect which this absence could / did have on the business.)

As a general rule, the longer the period of absence, the more serious is such an absence.
Where the effect of an employee’s absence from work was such that it either resulted in the organisation suffering undue losses or could jeopardise the jobs of other employee’s, then dismissal would be appropriate. Where the absence is such that it amounts to an inconvenience to the organisation, but is not “life –threatening” to the organisation, then dismissal would not be an appropriate sanction. A more appropriate sanction would be written or final written warning, depending on the facts surrounding a particular dismissal.


(b) Desertion

Desertion refers to the situation where an employee leaves his / her place of employment, without permission, with the intention of not returning. General principle an employee could be charged with desertion if he / she was absent from work, without notice, for more than four working days, and management could show that his/ her intention was not to return to work, assuming that a number of precautionary steps had been taken.
(i) The employer must make reasonable attempts to find out what has happened to
the employee. This would include, where practical, sending someone to the
employee’s house to enquire after his/ her whereabouts.

• Alternatively, a registered letter is sent to the employee’s address, where
he/she is informed that his/her conduct amounts to desertion. He / she is
requested to report to the employer on a certain day at a designated time
to attend a disciplinary hearing concerning his/ her conduct.

(ii) The employer should hold a hearing to give the employee an opportunity to
explain his/ her behaviour. The employee would then be disciplined based
on the outcome of the hearing.

(c) The seriousness of desertion

As a summary, when it comes to absenteeism and desertion from the workplace, as a general rule the longer the period of time, the more serious the offence will be.

For further information on any SA labour law related matters, you can contact Bernard Reisner:

W. Tel: 021 423 3959
Fax: 021 423 2105
Cell: 082 433 3959
Email: bernard@capelabour.co.za