26 May

Many employers and employees do not fully understand or unable to differentiate between absenteeism, abscondment, and desertion in the workplace. Though all of them deal with some form of “absenteeism” from work, the terms need to be fully understood as understanding them will guide employers and employees on the best way to handle the matter should it arise in the workplace. 

UASA has put together below the definitions of the terms and a case study at the end to show how a practical working example of how this can be difficult, and how each case must be dealt with based on its own merits.


This is when an employee is off work for a short period without permission, but there are clear indications that the employee will return to work. This can be late-coming, absences from the workstation, and absences from the workplace itself for short periods.

Unauthorised absenteeism can also include taking extended tea breaks or lunch breaks, extended toilet breaks or smoke breaks, being absent for one day or more than one day without consent. Any instance where an employee is away from his workplace without authorisation constitutes unauthorised absenteeism.


Absconding from work is deemed to have occurred when an employee is absent from work for such a period that it seems they might not or do not intend to return to work. For example, if an employee is absent from work without permission for several days without informing the employer, and the employer is unable to make contact with the employee. 

Abscondment may be that the employee has been arrested and charged with a criminal offence, and they have not had time or the ability to communicate with the employer.


Desertion occurs when an employee has said or implied that they do not intend to return to work. For example, the employee is absent from work or fails to return to work after an authorised period, such as annual leave or sick leave and there is evidence to suggest that they will not be returning to the workplace e.g.

  • · Cleared their desk or office of all personal belongings
  • · They have informed co-workers that they are not coming back to work
  • · The employer has failed to make contact with the employee
  • · They have moved out of their address listed in the employee’s information file without advising their employer. 

Abscondment and desertion are very serious offences because they represent a breach of contract. A process must be followed and a hearing must be scheduled before the termination of employment, should the matter reach that stage. This can be done in absentia if the employee fails to present himself/herself at the hearing.

Interesting case 

An employee requested one month’s unpaid leave after believing that her ancestors had called her to be a sangoma. The employee submitted a certificate from her traditional healer verifying that she suffered from “premonitions of ancestors”. 

The employer failed to authorise such leave, and instead offered her one week’s unpaid leave which the employee rejected and absented herself for the entire period.

She was charged with various counts of misconduct, including being absent without a valid reason for more than three days and was dismissed. The case eventually landed in the labour court which found that the employee had given a reasonable explanation and therefore the employee should not have been dismissed.

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