Every year in the UK, thousands of employment contracts are terminated - some by employees, and some by their employers. Thankfully for both parties, the country has rules enforcing a minimum notice period that must be given to either party before any employment contract is terminated.

Minimum notice periods protect both employers and their staff. They give employers the chance to find replacement staff without being left high and dry, and they give employees the time to seek other employment before being out of work.

Whether you're an employee or an employer, it's always important to follow the rules when ending an employment contract to protect yourself from future claims. This means giving enough notice - whether that's the UK statutory notice period or the contractual notice period set out in the terms and conditions of your contract.

Let's take a look at what this really means.

How long is the statutory UK notice period?

Statutory notice periods are in place in the UK to protect all workers and employers no matter what their individual contracts state. Statutory notice is one week for employees that are leaving a role they've been in for one month or more, meaning they must tell their employers that they're leaving at least one week in advance.

For companies dismissing employees, statutory notice is:

  • One week for employees who have been employed for over one month but less than two years.
  • Two weeks for employees who have been employed for over two years, with an additional week's notice for each further year of continuous employment, up to a maximum of 12 weeks notice (given for 12 or more years of continuous service).

This is the minimum notice that should be given in each instance of the termination of a contract, including both dismissal and in the case of a post being made redundant. In many cases, though, contractual notice (the notice period set out in the terms and conditions of the employment contract) will be longer.

Always check your contractual notice period

Your contractual notice period will be set out in the terms and conditions of your employment. This could be the same as the statutory notice period, or it could be longer, but it can't be shorter, since the statutory notice sets out a minimum notice period for all employers and employees in the UK.

Before leaving a job or terminating any employment, it's really important to check all relevant contracts and make sure that contractual notice agreements aren't being breached.

Dismissal without notice

In some instances, employers can dismiss employees without notice. This can only be done on the grounds of gross misconduct, and employers must be very careful to ensure that these grounds have been met before sacking someone without notice.

Gross misconduct is when serious acts of misconduct have taken place at work, including:

  • Theft
  • Violence
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual harassment
  • Gross negligence

Dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct must be dealt with carefully, or employers could be liable to unfair dismissal claims. Employers must always investigate an accusation of gross misconduct and give staff the chance to respond before making a dismissal. If you think you've been dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct for something which didn't happen, you could claim for wrongful dismissal.

Can employees leave their job before their notice period is up?

In the case of employers dismissing employees, they can tell the employee they don't need to work their notice period provided they're still being paid. However, if your employer asks you to work your notice period, you will be expected to fulfill your notice period obligations.

If you're desperate to leave a position before the end of your notice period, you can always speak to your employer and explain your situation to them. You might want to leave early because you have a new position to take up, or because you find staying in your current role too stressful or awkward.

Your employer doesn't have to grant your request to leave early, but if they do they don't have to pay you during your notice period either, and some employers will waive the notice period for this reason. Others might simply understand your predicament and waive it as a favour - it's always worth asking.

If your employer won't allow you to leave a position early and it's having a serious impact on your mental health or wellbeing, you could always take some time off sick during your notice period. This could mean only being paid SSP if you're into your contractual notice period, but it's often better to take a brief pay cut than to struggle through a situation which is making you ill. Be aware, though, that you can still be dismissed while on sick leave if you're involved in disciplinary proceedings.