Is a Poisonous Attitude a Reason to Fire an Employee?

Your Coworkers Depend on You to Take Action for a Harmonious Workplace

Two employees sitting next to each other in an office
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Sometimes, angry and negative people do a good job, are always at work, and always on time. They are careful not to be too critical when supervisors or managers are around but are quick to spread rumors and try to supersede management at their own discretion. Despite their output, they are generally not well-liked, and their bad attitude can poison the entire team.

Can You Fire an Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude? 

The short answer is yes, as this is a great reason to let an employee go—but only if you can't fix the problem. Chances are that you can fix the problem. After all, you don't want to lose an employee who does a good job if you don't have to.

But look at the situation clearly: No one who is “poisoning the team” is actually doing a very good job, because not being a drag on other employees is an intrinsic part of every job. You can follow a plan that will dramatically improve the chances that the poisonous employee becomes a nicer employee, but it's not a 100% effective plan.

What to Say to the Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude

While you may have counseled the employee in passing (“Hey, I noticed you were very negative at that meeting.), this is the time for pointed, directed, and seated information. You can also ask questions and find out what they are thinking. It's possible that the employee doesn't realize just how negatively they are coming across to coworkers. Some approaches work better than others, such as:

"I've noticed you are unhappy and speak quite negatively about your job and the other people who work here. For instance, I've noticed that while you're always polite face to face, you'll say negative things behind people's backs."

"Part of your job is building good relationships with coworkers, and your behavior undermines this. What can I do to help you in this area? The question at the end will allow your employees to speak up and share their grievances, which, most likely they will have. Here's the thing: You can be compassionate."

But at the end of all the sympathy and compassionate communication, you need to come to this: “Regardless, the behavior is inappropriate in this office. We value your work and we don't want to lose you, but if you cannot pull this together, we will terminate your employment.”

Document the time, date, and content of the discussion. At this stage, you can present them with an official performance improvement plan document that details what is expected of them.

Step 1: Implement an Improvement Plan With the Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude

What you want to do is implement a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that stresses progressive discipline. This is where you follow a series of steps with the idea that if the employee does not change or improve, you end up with termination at the end. It's that end termination and the documentation you fill out that makes this process different than simply speaking to your employee about the problem.

Step 2: Follow Up With the Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude

You should never expect instantaneous perfection from an employee in this process. After all, it takes a lot of effort to change. The critical factor here is that you can't just start ignoring the bad behavior. If you notice poor behavior on the part of the employee, correct it at the moment, but otherwise, follow up with the employee in two weeks.

At the two-week meeting, if they are making great progress, congratulate them. If they are not making progress, this is when the "progressive" part of progressive discipline kicks in.

Present them with a written warning. This should include details of the problems they need to resolve as well as the information that if their behavior does not improve, your organization will suspend them and then terminate their employment.

Explain that this warning is placed in their employee file. Ask them to sign to indicate that they have received this warning. They may object, saying that they disagree with what is written. You can explain that their signature doesn't indicate agreement, but rather that they received it. 

Step 3: Suspend the Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude

If the employee is still not making progress, it's time for a suspension. You can say: “We've talked about your attitude problem and the behavior our organization experiences because of it. It's not improving. As I've said, we really value your work, but we value all of our employees. Your negative attitude and gossip are damaging to the department. As I explained two weeks ago, because you are not making progress, you will be suspended without pay for one day.” 

It's critical that the employee does no work on their suspension day. If they are exempt, you'll have to pay them for the whole day if they do any work. If they are non-exempt, you're required to pay them for the number of hours they worked. So make it very clear that they are not to work at all.

Step 4: Terminate the Employee Who Has a Bad Attitude

If the behavior does not improve after the suspension, it's time to let your negative employee go. While you might be tempted to keep them on, understand that if you do that, you will have no power over this employee ever again. They will know that they can do whatever they want to and you won't really do much.

If you say, “But I can't afford to lose them,” think again. Negative employees who gossip are damaging to your whole department. Your other employees are more likely to quit and are not as engaged as they would be if they were in a functional department. You owe it to all of your employees to take care of this poisonous employee, which means firing them if they either refuse to or are unable to change.

Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.

Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notable publications including "Forbes," "CBS," "Business Insider" and "Yahoo."