how to fire an employee with a bad attitude

A reader writes:

I have an employee who has been doing her job OK but has a bad attitude and is dragging everyone down. I know that you can’t fire someone just because they “have a bad attitude” so what is the best way to let her go? I am going to keep someone who was just hired recently to take over her position.

Have you talked to the employee about this? Or is this the first she’s going to hear of you being unhappy with her?

In general, if a manager has concerns about an employee that the employee doesn’t know about, the problem lies at least as much with the manager.

My hope is that you’ve already talked with her about this — presumably being more specific than just “bad attitude.” A bad attitude is a legitimate reason for letting someone go, but when you’re talking to the employee about it, you need to be more descriptive about exactly what she’s doing and how it’s problematic. For instance, “When you shoot down people’s new ideas the way you did in our meeting today, it makes people less likely to make suggestions.” Or, “When people ask you for help, you seem irritated with them, which is causing people to go around you for help.”

And then you’d ideally explain what the bar is that the employee needs to meet: “Part of what we need in this role is someone with a can-do attitude and a willingness to explore new ideas.”

And if the problem is severe enough that it could conceivably lead you to replace the person without significant improvement, you should be transparent about that too: “I want to be clear that this is important enough that without significant improvement in the next few weeks, we would need to move you out of this role.”

If you haven’t had that conversation yet, have it now.

Once you have that conversation, if there’s going to be improvement, you should expect to see it quickly (days/weeks, not months). If the problems continue, then your next conversation is a much more natural evolution of what you’ve already discussed:   “We talked two weeks ago about the fact that if your behavior with your colleagues didn’t change, we would need to let you go,” etc.

Often managers skip the first part of this process because it’s a hard conversation to have. But you really have to — it’s part of the job. Other times, managers skip it because they don’t think the person can or will change — but you still need to, because even if you’re right, going through this process has a ton of crucial benefits:

  • the person isn’t blindsided, which means it’s kinder and more fair
  • the person isn’t blindsided, which means they’re less likely to assume the “real” reason is something nefarious (i.e., illegal) and decide to sue
  • you won’t end up struggling to figure out how to have the termination conversation, like you are now; it’ll be a natural outgrowth of your earlier meeting
  • other staff members won’t start to worry that they too could be fired out of the blue one day; people will know they’ll be warned ahead of time if their job is in jeopardy

Here are some additional posts that may help:

how to fire an employee

should you warn an employee before firing her?

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Erica*

    Great advice. But I remain concerned that people think that there are certain, possibly legal rules that govern what is a fire-able offense. Unless it’s a protected class or there is clear discrimination – in most states, you can fire someone just for dressing poorly. Or having a bad attitude.

    That of course, absolutely does not mean you SHOULD, and AAM’s advice is spot on – but I don’t understand how people who have fire/hire authority remain confused about their significant power.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I so agree! I could write a book (well, maybe a booklet) filled with all the employment-related things that are legal that people think aren’t.

      I think it’s because you get lawyers at larger companies issuing these edicts about what managers can and can’t do — not because it’s illegal but because they will *always* recommend the safest, most legally conservative course of action. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best one or the only legal one though. And then, as a result, you have people misunderstanding and thinking it’s the law.

      (I have a mini-rant about this in this comment on an older post: )

    2. Anonymous*

      thank goodness in new zealand its a lot harder to fire someone. they need 3 warnings about 1 incident before it’s possible

  2. Cassie*

    I think this is great advice. I’m not in HR, but I hear plenty (my desk being close to the managers’ offices and their habit of not closing doors to discuss confidential matters). I don’t think anyone has ever been fired from our dept (although a few were let go before their probation ended), but there are constant criticisms about certain employees regarding “bad” attitudes or not being competent in their duties. These managers, however, don’t discuss the issues with the employees in question – they (managers) just complain to each other or their friends.

    And then the managers complain that the problem employees aren’t improving! How can they, when they may not be aware that there are complaints nor have received any guidance on how to improve?

    I’d say giving the employee two weeks or so to show improvement is good – unless you really need someone different in that position RIGHT NOW. It might also allow the employee to reflect on whether he/she has the ability to meet the standard that you are looking for, and if not (e.g. if it’s a people-oriented position and they hate talking to people), maybe he/she will decide to leave amicably? But at least they will know what they need to do to improve and won’t be blindsided completely.

  3. Melissa*

    I agree with your post and Erica’s comments above. People often forget that doing a job, fully completing your job, is not only about the work factor (results) for most exempt positions. You are expected to deliver results. That’s why we hired you in the first place. There are so many other components that must be looked at when evaluating if an employee is truly up to par – how do they interact with others (hello attitude mentioned above); HOW they go about doing their job; soft skills; etc. These combined are what makes an employee meeting expectations or not.

    What I’ve also found, is that the manager may provide the feedback, but their own behavior doesn’t always match up with their words. If the employee thinks you have a bad attitude or has seen you treat people disrespectfully, the employee is not going to be open to hearing your feedback about “attitude.” I hate to say it, but for this one… does it all start at the top? :)

  4. Joey*

    That is unless the person is new. If it’s a fairly new employee just be straightforward and tell them they’re not a good fit for your organization. Really, a new mediocre employee with a bad attitude is going to be a long term problem.

  5. Jamie*

    I usually take the hard line side of absolute accountability, but without specifics as to what constitutes bad attitude in this instance I would suggest the manager look to see if there are work-related issues which might be causing it.

    Of course all adults are responsible for their own behavior – but if someone is routinely overtaxed (picking up slack for lower performing co-workers for example) or has been putting in particularly long hours it can be hard to maintain a sunny disposition.

    Nothing would excuse a truly bad attitude – but factors mentioned above can cause a person to opt for a professional and civil rather than friendly and delightful demeanor.

    It really depends what constitutes a “bad attitude.”

    I agree 100% that any issue which is causing management to even think of letting someone go is serious enough to warrant feedback earlier on and give them a chance to make the required adjustments, or if they can’t at least prepare them for needing to find a better fit elsewhere.

    1. Anonymous*

      Jamie raises a good point. A good manager will look with a critical eye at everything that might cause a bad attitude, including her own management style. I have seen bad employee attitude caused by not only malcontents but also non-communicative management, overwork/understaffing issues, lack of supplies (really), and micro-managers. Micromanaging is the one that gets me, just tell me what you want and cut me loose. I’ll get back to you.

      1. Anonymous*

        I absolutely agree. I was talked to regarding my “poor attitude” at a previous job… which was partially my fault, but also a result of continuously changing schedules, 16 hour shifts to pick up for co-workers who didn’t bother to show up and a workload that just kept increasing with layoff after layoff of my superiors. It was the most frustrating thing to hear about how my “bad attitude” was a major problem, when all my requests and needs to function as an employee weren’t being met.

        To be fair, I did try to sunny up after that and try to be more positive about coming into work. I then found a job that didn’t tax me to my limits and, lo, I do have a generally better attitude! But what Jamie and Anonymous have said are points to consider… there may be a reason that the employee is unhappy that just hasn’t been voiced to you yet.

        1. Jamie*

          If there are issues that haven’t been voiced, all the more reason to have the feedback conversation.

          What’s worse is when the issues have been voiced, and acknowledged – having your work place problems validated, but no measures being taken to correct – is actually worse, imo. If the powers that be don’t know what’s going on then it’s my fault if I’m miserable. If they know, agree that my points are valid, but nothing changes…that creates a breeding ground for resentment.

          Anonymous 12:58 is proof that sometimes an attitude is a result of the environment – good for you for getting out of there.

          And now I will go and attempt to improve my own attitude :)

  6. Dawn*

    I can personally vouch for a “bad attitude” having much to do with the environment you work in and the events that take place at work.

    For about four years I was dealing with high turnover in another department. Since I was the only one who had been here “since the beginning,” that meant I had to cover that department while we tried to find a replacement. Therefore, I fell far behind in my own work. I began to dread coming to work. And, since I am the go-to person, I would get annoyed when someone in another department needed help with something, because that meant I had to stop what I was doing (which was already past due) and help them. Having to always tell my bosses, “no, I didn’t get that done” or “no, I don’t have time to do that” really made me feel like “getting out from under” would never happen.

    Now that we have hired a replacement, my attitude has greatly improved. Funny how that happens.

    There are some people, though, that have a bad attitude from the get-go and there isn’t much you can do other than have a discussion about improvement and then move them out the door if they don’t improve.

  7. Ellen*

    Ferdinand F Fournies’ book “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do and What To Do About It” covers almost every reason for nonperformance, and how to take “attitude” out of the equation. Similar to AAM’s advice to address “behavior”, it provides concrete steps on how to differentiate behavior from attitude and how to address the problem in concrete terms. Many of the issues raised in the comments (poor attitudes related to poor working conditions) are addressed in the sixteen reasons why employees don’t do their jobs correctly. Every new manager should read this book. It’s the most no-nonsense, common sense book on managing I have ever read.

  8. Anonymous*

    Agree with AAM. I can’t stand when one of my managers comes to me wanting to terminate someone and admits they haven’t talked to them about the problematic shortcomings or behaviour. I have multiple conversations with the employee to clarify my expectations and their performance shortcomings, to try and modify the situation before I get to the termination phase. If they don’t respond to my coaching then we have the ‘You can leave gracefully or we can put you on a performance plan – your pick’ At that point since the foundation has already been laid regarding my expectations and their lack of performance, they usually choose to transition out.

  9. Anonymous*

    That is great advice. Thank you. I have been to several seminars that have told me that you cannot fire someone just because of their “attitude”. So I was always under the understanding that there had to be other reasons other than just that.
    Thank you again!

  10. anonymous*

    The big question a manager — and a human resources department should be looking at — is WHY a “bad attitude” emerged.

    Was it always there? Was there an event, or series of events that might have caused a change in attitude? Who caused it? Can the action be “fixed” or the problem “repaired” and everyone goes forward, or is it irreparable?

    And what is meant by “bad attitude”??? I can remember one of my daughter’s junior high teachers, telling me in spite of her “A” grades, she “had a bad attitude”. When I challenged her on it, stating that bad attitude is reflected in negative actions, give me some negative actions that we can work on…. she clammed up, and it turned out to be an ego clash.

    Some years later, in my work — I had great reviews — until one day – I read “he does the job but has a bad attitude”. Yeah, why?

    HR wanted to know, too — and there had been an incident where management committed a major faux pas against me (I won’t go into it here ) but I gave them a chance to back away from it, and without having to watch them eat humble pie over the incident.

    While I did walk away from the table with an increase, promotion, and “the heat off”, my career at that company was over shortly thereafter (my call). We were able to part company in peace, and best of all, the manager and director that caused the problem were also allowed to continue their careers there, albeit with more scrutiny.

    If you, as an employee – are accused of having a “bad attitude”, it is difficult to deflect the charge, because getting defensive often only amplifies your plight. The best way to counter this is “OK – give me specifics and tell me what to avoid doing…” — if you get a Porky Pig “ba-dee-da-dee-da-dee-dum” answer, tell your boss – “you’re making no sense.”

    If there are specifics that are perceived as a bad attitude – then try to overcome them. Sometimes you can’t, however, and it’s time to move on.

  11. frustrated*

    I am an employee who has been at the same place for 3 1/2 years. The only evaluation I have ever had was a great (almost perfect only because they won’t give perfect). A new administration took over and now there is favoritism, corruption, and intense scrutiny. The CEO, COO, and office manager are all of a certain religion. At our last meeting we were given mandatory “homework” from a book written by a member of that religion. I refused to do the homework. All our communication must be in an e-mail-there is no more face allowed. Then the e-mails are interpreted as negative. I am now considered to an employee with a bad attitude. Employees are being fired or suspended right and left, everyone is paranoid and no trusts anyone anymore. It is a nightmare, and my attitude is as good as I can possibly make it. They are getting rid of the best employees we have. Don’t know how to act at work as nothing is good enough anymore, unless you are a friend or family member of people in high places.
    I have no idea how to work around this situation, moving on lets down the ones that need to helped just like I do. How do you work around bad management

  12. Roll Dog*

    The only ways you can fire someone are if he or she does not do his/her job and that he/she does not show up a couple of times. Otherwise, that person has a right to sue you if you fire him/her just for the heck of it.

    Having a bad attitude may be considered personal and not professional. Because if it does not interfere with the person’s job, then there is really nothing you can do.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Um, are you in the U.S.? That is very much NOT the case here. You can be fired for pretty much any reason or no reason at all, as long as it’s not based on illegal discrimination (i.e., firing you because of your race, gender, religion, or other protected class). You could be fired because you wore an ugly shirt or because your boss doesn’t like the way you laugh. See this post:

      1. Roll Dog*

        So, I guess that you are saying that anyone can be fired for a reason or not. Yeah, that is possible.

        But, if you are fired for a wrong or no reason, then you can defend yourself to other potential employers. I know that I would.

        Just because someone is fired, it does not mean that he or she will ever get another job again.

        1. Marla*

          In that last sentence, “Just because someone is fired, it does not mean that he or she will ever get another job again.” I hope you meant never instead of ever.

  13. Roll Dog*

    Sometimes, it can be hard always having a positive attitude at a job especially if you have to work unpleasant hours and deal with supervisors and co-workers no matter how they treat you.

  14. Phil*

    There is nearly always a reason for a “bad attitude”. A wise manager will always be asking WHY?? before acting. Throwing someone out of a job for a “bad attitude” without asking them for an explanation. If you, as a manager don’t try to find the root cause, the problem will repeat itself with a new person.

    1. Roll Dog*

      You are right.

      I just think that employers who fire bad attitude workers without an explanation are ignorant and/or indifferent. Employers must show concern for their workers. If not, then workers, current or new, would also disregard them as well.

      Treat others as you want to be treated. The same thing goes with employers and employees/workers.

  15. SCAt*

    What do you do in a situation where myself & another were up for a promotion, I got it & he/she didn’t. They removed everything from their office (only 1 personal item), will not talk to anyone in the office unless he/she is directly talked to. Does the bare minimum of work, doesn’t participate in anyting additionally job related. He/she feels wronged by the previous supervisor, that he/she was told they were being groomed for the job – which was 100% not true. He/she has shown in other organizations associated with our office that he/she does not have the capability to follow through on any assignment. So any direction would be greatly appreciated.

  16. jade bellamy*

    I think that whatever you are going through you need to leave it where its at and pray about it and dont bring that bad attitude to work with you.Because if you get fired on a job because of your bad attitude thats not worth it or your income, so think about it and change it!

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