How clear rules on job abandonment save small business owners money

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Ghosting. Millennials and Gen Z use this term to describe potential love matches that suddenly disappear after a couple conversations or a few nights out. No explanation. No formal break up. No further contact. Just a giant question mark and someone on the other end wondering why.

If that feeling sounds familiar — even if you’ve been lucky in love and haven’t had to date in years — you’re not alone. Over time, ghosting has become an increasingly common way for people to avoid having tough conversations about all kinds of things, including leaving their jobs.

When that happens, it’s called job abandonment. And the ability to recognize when it’s truly happening could decrease your tax burden. Read on to learn:

Let’s get started.

What is job abandonment?

Even though we’ve explored the concept through the lens of modern slang, here’s the professional gist: Job abandonment is a legal form of voluntary resignation. It essentially means that an employee is choosing to terminate their employment instead of being fired.

But unlike traditional employee-initiated separations that include a resignation letter or two-weeks’ notice, job abandonment happens when an employee who is scheduled to work fails to:

  • report for their shift

  • return to their job and

  • communicate their intentions to quit to their employer

The word “and” is important here. For a separation to truly be considered job abandonment, it should meet all three criteria. For example, if an employee is a no-call, no-show for just one shift, it probably wouldn’t technically count as abandonment. Neither would a scenario where an employee missed a couple shifts due to illness or an emergency, and communicated the situation to their manager. Time off taken in accordance with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) doesn’t fit the bill either.

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Job abandonment: Understanding the distinction is important. Firing employees simply because they didn’t report for a shift and claiming job abandonment can be a costly mistake.

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Get it right to keep your costs down

When terminated workers apply for unemployment, state agencies use a set of criteria to determine whether that person should be awarded benefits. While each state and scenario is different, claims will likely be denied if an employee was terminated on the grounds of:

  • Misconduct at work: This includes but isn’t limited to failure to follow safety procedures, engaging in criminal activity, theft, assault or illegal drug use.

  • Misconduct outside of work: Sexually harassing a co-worker at happy hour or posting proprietary info on social media are just a couple of examples.

  • Chronic absenteeism: This describes employees who are constantly late or incur numerous unexcused absences, potentially over the course of several consecutive days.

  • Voluntary separation: Employees who quit are not entitled to unemployment benefits, unless they left because staying would have endangered their health or safety.

Why is all of this important? Because the fewer number of ex-employees that can successfully claim unemployment, the lower the costs for you.

Why is all of this important? Because the fewer number of ex-employees that can successfully claim unemployment, the lower the costs for you. As an employer, the state unemployment tax rates you pay are what the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) calls “experience-rated.” That means if a large percentage of your ex-employees were able to claim unemployment, you will pay a higher tax rate. If a small percentage of terminated employees are able to claim unemployment, the opposite would be true.

It’s also worth noting because the state decides who receives unemployment based in-part on their criteria, not solely your reason for termination. So if you fire an employee after one no-call, no-show shift — instead of several — and call it job abandonment, your state agency is likely to rule against you because it doesn’t fit their definition of chronic absenteeism.

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Consider your options carefully

You may be tempted to terminate employees however you see fit and then fight unemployment claims after the fact. While that’s certainly an option, it can be an expensive and time-consuming one. Especially if you have multiple locations, or remote employees spread across different states and are unaware of each one’s unemployment laws.

Depending on the situation, fighting an employee’s claim could also drive them to take legal action, like filing a wrongful termination lawsuit or turning their friends who are still employed against you.

If contesting claims after the fact still seems like the best choice for you and your business, it might be helpful to do a little research before you act. Nolo.com recommends calling your state unemployment office to get specifics on their laws and even insight into how much a particular separation will raise your unemployment tax rate. If the change will be minimal, you might consider just moving on.

You might even consult with your attorney. They can evaluate terminations on a case-by-case basis and provide insight into the likelihood of successfully fighting a claim.

However, if you fall into the “ounce of prevention” camp, read on. We’ll cover steps to take before termination that can decrease the number of ex-employees who can successfully claim unemployment and ways to increase employee retention overall.

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Establish your own job abandonment policy

While the US Department of Labor and state agencies tend to agree on the general characteristics of job abandonment, they leave the finer points of policy to employers. Which means it’s up to you to determine what an unexcused absence actually looks like and how many it takes to qualify as job abandonment.

Those details are important because in-part, they will determine whether an ex-employee is able to obtain unemployment benefits. Most agencies will deny claims if it’s discovered that the person filing failed to:

  • report to work for a predetermined amount of time or number of shifts

  • communicate with their manager or employer about unexpected or unexcused absences in accordance with the employee handbook

Elements of a comprehensive job abandonment policy

To ensure you’re creating a comprehensive policy that can stand up to scrutiny, create one with the following elements:

Clear expectations:

Tell employees what good attendance looks like. For example, you might include something like, “Employees should report to work on the days and times they are scheduled.” Perhaps that should go without saying. But remember: The goal is to set clear expectations and remove any ambiguity that could tip an unemployment claim out of your favor.

Instructions for calling in:

Even the most committed employees will occasionally miss work. It’s important that every member of your team knows what to do when these situations arise. Include details around when, how and who they should contact. It’s also helpful to explain what to do in case they can’t reach out themselves. That could include recruiting a family member to call or directing them to reach out as soon as possible.

The definition of an unexcused absence:

You may think that describing good attendance creates a de facto policy on poor attendance: The opposite of what’s expected is unacceptable. And while that’s a reasonable assumption, it’s worth it to include specifics on what an unexcused absence looks like as well. Policy is about getting everyone on the same page. The more detail, the better.

The number of unexcused absences that constitute job abandonment:

Most companies stipulate that three consecutive no-call, no-shows officially count as a voluntary termination. But you have the flexibility to determine what’s right for your business. As you think through it, keep in mind that your employees don’t live in a perfect world. No one wants to get into an accident, lose child care at the last minute or have to deal with a family emergency. But it happens. Consider building a little leeway into your rule.

If you’re short on time and don’t necessarily want to draft a detailed policy, SHRM offers a free template on their website.

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Communicate your policy to your teams

A perfectly written attendance policy doesn’t amount to much if people don’t know it exists or can’t easily access it when they have questions. It’s crucial that all of your team members — new and old — read, understand and formally acknowledge your policy.

Start by sending an email or chat announcing the new company policy to your employees. Ask them to respond letting you know they have read, understand and agree to abide by the new rules. If that feels too distant or robotic, consider calling everyone together, making an announcement and answering questions face-to-face. Personally communicating your message and using discussion to share the “why” goes a long way toward preserving morale.

If you choose to go the in-person route, that’s great! Just remember to follow up with some type of communication that proves employees read, understand and agree to the new policy.

Next, add the policy to your employee handbook. Once it’s there, you can count on new hires agreeing to the policy simply by reading and signing the handbook during onboarding. You can also rest easy knowing that all employees can reference the rules anytime, and that you’ve properly set expectations in case you ever need to prove it.

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Take action when the time is right

So you’ve studied the criteria, decided on the details of your own policy, and created and communicated rules about unexcused absences. And yet, you’re still confronted with an employee who’s ghosting you. It’s easy to let the frustration get the best of you, wondering why they’d leave you hanging or how it could’ve been different.

Instead of focusing on feelings and what’s in the past, direct your energy toward moving forward as efficiently as possible. If you handle the situation appropriately, you can terminate an employee on the grounds of job abandonment while minimizing your risk. Here are important steps you’ll need to take.

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Make an effort to reach out

To prove due diligence on your end, you’ll need to do everything you can to reach your employee to find out why they aren’t coming in and didn’t make contact with you in advance. You’ll also need to explain the consequences of these choices. As an extra ounce of prevention, it’s worth documenting the date and time of any and all phone calls, emails or texts so you have the information handy for future reference.

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Consider the circumstances

If you reach them, be willing to hear them out. For instance, you may remember us mentioning FMLA and its role in covering unpaid, unscheduled leave related to an employee’s medical condition(s). If you attempt to fire an employee who’s covered by FMLA — intentionally or not — you could find yourself violating this law.

Beyond medical situations, it is possible that an employee could violate your policy without realizing they’ve done so. In the same way a college professor has the option to fail a student for violating their attendance policy, the power is yours. In some cases, the choice may be clear. But if you’re looking at losing a decent employee who didn’t have any ill-intent, it may be worth giving them a second chance.

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Draft and send a job abandonment letter

Once you’ve fully committed to terminating the employee on grounds of job abandonment, it’s time to draft and send them a letter that spells out the decision in no uncertain terms. At minimum, the letter should:

  • Include contact information for yourself, your company and the employee receiving it, as well as the date you sent the letter.

  • Clarify the purpose of the letter, and include a reference to the job abandonment policy that’s included in your company handbook.

  • Document the exact dates and times that the employee failed to appear for their shifts. Include any documentation on steps taken to reach out to them from you or management here, like we mentioned above.

  • Clarify how they can retrieve any outstanding paychecks, how to return company property and when they will receive information about health benefits or COBRA.

There are plenty of examples to choose from, but SHRM’s job abandonment termination notice template is a good place to start. Consider mailing the letter using registered mail and a return receipt so you can prove the notification was received. Once the date mentioned in the letter has passed, update the employee’s file with the date they were terminated.

On its own, the letter can stand as a notification of termination. However, if you would like it to act as a final offer to a great employee who may have just fallen on bad times, include a last-chance blurb. State that per your policy, the employee will be terminated within a specified number of days after receipt of the letter unless they contact you with new information or explanations of their absences.

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Prevent job abandonment

Hopefully, you won’t have to follow these instructions very often. If you do, it may be time to take a look inward and reevaluate a few things. Are there steps you can take to prevent job abandonment?

For example, is it easy for employees to quickly get their schedule? Or do they have to come in or call to find out when they’re supposed to work? If so, how often does that put them in a crunch: Learning on Sunday afternoon that they have to work early Monday morning? Not only is that tedious, time-consuming and frustrating for employees, it disrupts your managers. Instead of seeing to the crucial tasks that grow your business, they’re fielding phone calls, texts and in-person conversations about the schedule. To offset this, you might consider technology that allows employees to easily view their schedule from their mobile device.

Hopefully, you won’t have to follow these instructions very often. If you do, it may be time to take a look inward and reevaluate a few things.

You also might think about how easy it is for your employees to swap shifts. Today’s workers rank the ability to better control their schedule as one of the most important aspects of workplace culture. Again, technology makes it easy for employees to get the flexibility they want without driving your managers crazy. Look for a solution that allows employees to change or pick up shifts — and managers to approve or deny those requests — with the click of a button.

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Work with a trusted partner

If working with a technology provider to update your policies and scheduling processes sounds like a good plan, you’re on the right track. To ensure you’re getting a comprehensive solution that will meet your short- and long-term needs, choose a provider who can answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • Do you provide resources that can help me quickly draft policies and employee handbook updates?

  • Do you also provide technology that makes it easy to update and share any future changes to policies and procedures with my entire team?

  • Does your solution store documentation of employees’ agreements to follow policies and procedures?

  • Does your technology allow me to easily incorporate my employee handbook into the new-hire onboarding process?

  • Does your scheduling solution allow employees to easily view schedules and swap shifts from their mobile devices?

  • Can I rely on a team of HR professionals to guide me through the termination process if I need help?


Heartland’s Payroll+ solution delivers on each one of those points and more. As a Heartland customer, you will receive support from professionals who are just a phone call away whenever you need a helping hand.

Being ghosted by employees who abandon their job is no picnic. Mistakenly terminating someone for job abandonment and watching your unemployment insurance costs go up isn’t fun either. But the right strategy, technology and support can make it all feel a little easier. Ready to button your policy up and drive your hard costs down? We’d love to hear from you.