Definition of a Separated Employee and a Terminated Employee

Human resources staff describe the end of an employment relationship in a number of ways that virtually mean the same thing to a layperson – the employee no longer works for the company. However, some terms and phrases are confusing when they are used interchangeably. Employee separation and employee termination are two such phrases and are used depending on the circumstances and the reason an employee leaves a job.

Generally, an employee separation describes any event that separates the employer and the employee. Some human resources practitioners refer to “separation” as the process of informing the employee of the termination, completing paperwork for continuation of benefits and retrieving company property from the employee. Other HR practitioners distinguish between separation and termination based on why the employee is no longer employed.


When an employee tenders a resignation or simply quits her job, it’s usually called a resignation. Some employers differentiate involuntary termination from voluntary termination, however. An employee who decides to leave the company is said to have terminated her employment and if further distinction is required, a resignation is considered voluntary termination.


Separated employees include employees who retire. Employee separation, in some instances, is a relatively neutral way to describe the end of the employment relationship. Separation can occur when the employee doesn’t necessarily want to leave, but does so anyway for reasons other than leaving the company for a better opportunity or embarking upon a new career path. Employee separation is a phrase also used to describe the end of the employment relationship due to death.


The term “discharge” is often used to describe an employee who is fired or terminated involuntarily. It’s common to hear this term used in a union work environment, as in the “the employee was discharged for just cause.” The terms “discharge” and “just cause” are indicative of employment terms and conditions pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement or an employment contract. Involuntary termination refers to severing the employment relationship due to poor performance, violation of workplace policies, misconduct, absenteeism or other similar reasons.


Employee termination and employee separation are both appropriate ways to describe when an employee layoff occurs. Although the word termination sounds like the employee was at fault, termination in the case of a layoff means the employment relationship ended due to business closure or a lack of available work. Where there is an indefinite layoff, such as business closure, the termination process is more likely to be called a separation because there exists a slim possibility employees may be called back.


About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.