Leslie W. Price
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Theatre director, writer, and arts educator.

It's almost the end of the workday, and you're trying to get one last thing done before you head home. Unfortunately, your employee decided to take off before the end of the day, and now you can't finish up as much work as you hoped you could. It's possible your employee has an excellent excuse for leaving. They might be sick, have a family emergency or need to run an important errand. It's equally possible they're leaving early to meet up with friends or to enjoy the first sunny day of spring. 

How do you deal with an employee leaving early? You could freak out. You could let it keep happening. Or you could help create a positive, efficient work environment and try these simple steps for handling employees who leave early.

6 steps for managing employees who leave work without permission.

1. Let it go.

Everyone needs to head out early once in a while, and the causes for people to leave work early vary from person to person. Take a lesson from your toddler's 5000th viewing of Frozen and let it go. If your employee hasn't done this before and didn't know ahead of time that they'd be needed for something important, it really isn't a huge deal for them to leave early one time. You have to decide whether it's worth the time and effort to address an early exit or not. If an employee didn't skip out on a big project or create a huge problem, you might just want to let it go, at least the first time. If leaving work early is starting to become a habit, move on to step two and avoid being taken advantage of.

2. Ask them about it.

Simply asking an employee about why they left early is a great way to handle this challenge. If you can bring some genuine care and concern to the situation, you might be able to help an employee figure out how to deal with balancing work and a challenging family circumstance. Maybe their child care situation has changed, and they need to come in earlier and leave earlier. Or perhaps they're struggling with a chronic illness and need some compassion. If it turns out your employee was ducking out for an afternoon of fun, well, now they know you're on to them, and they probably won't start taking advantage of you. Keeping the lines of communication open allows you to make sure your employees know what is expected of them, and it lets you know how you can support their best work.

3. Work together to make a plan.

If your employee has started making a habit of leaving early despite you setting clear expectations, it's time to involve HR and make a plan about how to go forward. Take the time to try to listen and understand what's going on with your employee. They might not have wanted to share personal details about whatever is prompting the early departures, and your human resources department can help guide them toward offering information about what's impacting their performance. HR can also help support employees by providing information on family leave or other accommodations for illnesses if that's necessary. HR can work with you to set up a very clear schedule and plan to make sure you and your employee are on the same page moving forward. Being flexible for a valuable employee is reasonable, but it's equally important to make sure you aren't being taken advantage of.

4. Continue to check in.

Now that you have a plan, it's up to you to enforce it. Again, communication is key, and regular check-ins can help an employee stay focused and perform well. Don't wait until things go downhill again before letting them know that they need to adjust their behavior. Taking the time to correct smaller issues will help you avoid larger ones. Although you want to use this time to make sure you set clear expectations, leave the door open for employees to feel comfortable letting you know if they do need your understanding should they need to leave early, and make sure they know the steps for asking for permission to do so.

5. Give a warning.

If, despite all your best efforts, your employee continues to leave work early without permission, it's time to give them a warning. Chances are, this will be built into the plan you created with your employee and HR, so make sure you document the warning appropriately. Explain to your employee that chronically leaving work early is not acceptable, and you expect them to correct that behavior. No need to put up with excuses, but do make the effort to listen if an employee does decide to share new information that could help you do a better job of managing them.

6. Consequences.

If someone isn't doing their job, there should be a consequence. Exactly what that is depends on your company and management structure. In some instances, an apology will suffice. Perhaps the consequence is making up for the missed time in the future or taking on some additional projects. Again, the consequences for leaving early without permission should be explained when you first bring HR into the situation. That way, your employee won't be surprised when faced with the effects of their repeated choice to leave early.

Can you fire an employee for leaving work early?

Yes, you can. As with any situation, you'll first want to consult their contract as well as the employee handbook to make sure you have handled everything properly leading up to the decision to terminate. If your employee is in a union, you will also need to consult a union representative repeatedly along the way, and your employee will also be entitled to have a union representative present for important discussions about their employment. Firing someone should always be the last resort, so do your best to resolve the situation before you get to the point you need to let them go.

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Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator, and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio