Human Resources

Ending Employment – How to Break up with Underachieving Employees



Valentine’s Day is over and done with for another year, hot on its heels comes Singles Awareness Day, which takes place on the 15th of February.

As we scour the supermarket shelves for discount chocolate and put the romcoms away for another year, our fuzzy feelings may be fading fast.

As the romance takes a back seat, our thoughts turn to those that we may be falling out of love with. Breaking up with a partner is hard but dismissing a colleague can be a struggle too – even for senior HR leaders.

It’s possible to work in HR for many years without actually having to be involved in a dismissal. If you’re not feeling confident with being part of a dismissal, then it’s time to learn how to stay cool even if the situation becomes fraught.

Above all, don’t be tempted to say, “it’s not you, it’s us”!




Create a Timeline

Logistically, ending your working relationship with an employee is complex. You’ve got to consider who will take their place, how you will manage their access to data, how you’ll deal with the documentation you have on file and more.

A timeline should be created to ensure that this process goes as smoothly as possible, without any key actions missed. Refer back to CIPD guidance on employment law and dismissals to guide you through the process. Employment tribunals can happen, so do your due diligence to prepare for any eventuality.

This timeline should include any warnings that have been given to the employee. In the case of gross misconduct, these may not apply, but you should still document every step that you can in case you have to defend your decisions and actions at a hearing.


Arrange the Meeting

All employees deserve a face-to-face meeting to inform them that their employment is ending. Don’t be tempted to communicate this information over email or text, even if breaking it off in person seems frightening.

Again, in the case of gross misconduct this may not be possible, especially if the employee is no longer permitted on the property. Try to consider what would be best in this situation, whether that’s meeting on neutral territory or using a mediation service. If this would endanger you or other members of staff, then an immediate dismissal or communication via letter would be more suitable.

When conducting these meetings, you should do so in the presence of the employee’s immediate supervisor. They should be there to weigh in on the performance that they have monitored, with HR there to moderate the discussion.

Never go into a dismissal meeting alone; there should always be another witness present. The employee is also entitled to bring a witness, who may be a colleague or union representative. 

Having this meeting in the mid-afternoon is popular, because it allows the employee to leave for the day shortly after to process their feelings.

Remember, except in exceptional circumstances, this meeting shouldn’t come as a total surprise to them, as you should have been clearly communicating your expectations around performance and behaviour.




Conducting the Discussion

As the HR representative for the company, it’s your job to lead this discussion. Be straightforward and tell the employee that the purpose of the meeting is to give them notice that their employment is ending. It’s best to be direct and get this out of the way as soon as possible in the meeting.

Discussing the reasons for this is entirely optional, especially if you have followed a process of written warnings and coaching. Some HR professionals prefer to keep this brief so as not to draw out the meeting, whereas others will enter into a further discussion. Either way, keep the conversation constructive and unemotive.

Stick to the facts when discussing the end of employment, including any warnings and reasoning. Then, give them an anticipated end date, double check their contract and give them the correct period of notice.

You may want to enter into a dialogue with the employee, to give them a chance to make their side heard. However, don’t give the employee false hope that they may be able to talk themselves out of the situation if this isn’t possible; be clear that the decision is final.

Their line manager may wish to give them more insight into the reason behind their dismissal, as they have first-hand experience of working with them. It’s not a time for finger pointing or blaming, so be ready to direct the discussion back to neutral ground if things become heated.

If the employee becomes upset or angry, then you can bring the meeting to a close. Thank them for their time and let them know what the next steps will be, being clear and concise wherever possible. 


After the Meeting

Now that the employee is aware of the end of their time with the company, you can begin to take steps to finalise this. Any company property should be returned, such as laptops or conferencing equipment, and their security clearance should be revoked.

Work with IT to ensure that passwords are changed and sensitive data is protected. Morrisons supermarket has been held responsible for a former member of staff stealing employee data, so employers have to protect themselves fully.

A handover to another member of staff may be required, but this has to be handled sensitively. The idea of training or assisting their replacement may (understandably!) not sit well with the employee, which may have a negative impact on the information that they pass on.




If the new employee is given a poor impression by the departing employee, this can also give them a negative introduction to the company.

Finally, an exit interview may also be appropriate. This can uncover valuable insight into their employee experience, such as issues with the onboarding or training programme. This isn’t a time for bashing the company; it’s an investigation into what you could be doing better.

The employee has nothing to lose by being candid, so you will often get a more honest insight than usual. You can use a modified version (don’t ask them why they want to leave!) of this CIPD exit interview template to expedite the process.


Managing Change

The dismissal of an employee makes ripples across the entire workforce, no matter how amicable. Other members of staff will look for reassurance and want to know more about the situation. It’s essential to address these doubts without compromising the privacy of the employee.

For employees in the immediate department of the employee, ensure there is a meeting in which information about the continuation of the department is passed on. Communicate who will be responsible for the employee’s workload, explain the plan for future hiring, and invite questions.

We all want to know what’s happening within our workplace, so take the lead and be proactive with managing the change. If employees ask inappropriate questions about the exact circumstances of the employee, just steer the meeting back to safer waters and explain that you can’t discuss certain factors due to the employee’s privacy rights.


If you’re still struggling with the idea of letting someone go, remember, an employee performing poorly or behaving badly almost always has a negative effect on their colleagues as well as their work. While ending the employment of another person is never easy, sometimes you just have to make a clean break.

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