How should HR handle employees stranded abroad?

With airline staff shortages causing delays for thousands of people trying to return home from overseas, People Management answers the key questions facing employers

Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Thousands of people are still stuck abroad due to airline chaos following the bank holiday weekend. 

Airlines such as WizzAir, British Airways, Lufthansa and EasyJet cancelled at least 225 departures from UK airports between Monday and Friday last week, according to aviation data firm Cirium, following staff shortages.

While those stuck overseas face the stress of getting home, People Management takes a look at the most pertinent questions HR faces when employees are unable to return to work.

Should I be paying my stranded employees?

Not turning up to work as expected can mean an employee is absent without leave, meaning they have no entitlement to pay, says Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter. “A simple plea of there being circumstances beyond the control of the individual is not necessarily good enough.”

However, says Angela Carter, legal director for England and Wales at WorkNest, an employee stuck abroad could take the time as holiday to avoid missing out on pay, as long as both employer and employee agree and the employee has not exhausted their holiday entitlement for the year.

If an employee is able to work productively remotely, then this is also something that could be agreed with the employer. But, she says: “It would be for the employer to take a view as to whether the employee is properly equipped and able to work remotely from abroad.”

Williams recommends employers not deduct any pay for the delayed return until after a full investigation a disciplinary hearing has been conducted. Even then, he says, they should seek advice before imposing such a sanction.

How do I maintain productivity and continuity in the face of unexpected absences?

Firms should suggest that absent members of staff who are caught by the travel disruption email or call with any notes or instructions relating to the activities they can no longer participate in, suggests Ian Moore, managing director of Lodge Court. “This should help the team feel more in control,” he says.

He also says that absences of this kind, while not their fault, are still likely to make the employee “feel frustrated and anxious that they have let down their employer”, and advises HR teams to reassure staff stuck abroad that they are not in trouble and that the team looks forward to their return. 

Alongside the options of paid and unpaid leave, Moore also suggests some firms may have measures in place to allow employees to make the time up over a few weeks or months.

Should my businesses be considering disciplinary action?

Williams says that, depending on the circumstances such as the length of the delay in returning, an employer could look at taking disciplinary action. However, minor infringement can easily be dealt with informally.

“If the non-arrival causes significant disruption the employer may want to address why the employee put themselves in the position of risking not being at work via formal disciplinary proceedings,” he says, adding that such a move should only be made after an investigation.

He also warns that the “consequences for the employee could be serious if they are found to have gone against advice with respect to foreign travel at a crucial time for the employer”.