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How To Fire a Toxic Employee

Dear Evil HR Lady, 

Quick and dirty version, we have a long term employee that is soooo cranky! She talks down to people, demeans them, and everyone, even the executive director is afraid of her. Her superior attitude shuts down all discussion and we are actually supposed to be a really creative and collaborative organization. I was just brought into the true seriousness of the issue and feel she should be let go. 

We have already lost 2 employees as a direct result of her, and the way she is tip-toed around makes our management look weak. We are meeting with her next week and putting on 30 day notice. It will be a surprise to her, because she feels she is the star employee of the organization. 

I'm wondering if you know of any resources to provide her with, rather than just telling her no one wants to work with her and she is severely impacting our ability run a successful organization. It's pretty sucky to have to tell someone that they are just not liked. Are there any change your attitude type books or improvement programs you would recommend? I'm not patient enough to actually want to work on it, but the Exec director wants to be sure she is given every chance (which she already has been given, plus!). 

Bad employees stink. It's definitely better, in terms of potential law suits, to give her a chance to change her ways. And as long as we're talking law suits, is she a minority, over 40, or pregnant? If she is, it doesn't mean you can't fire her, it just means that you need to make sure there is no appearance of discrimination. She needs to understand that her problem is her behavior not her age/race/gender/pregnancy status.

Also, has she been on any leaves of absence lately? If so and they are protected by FMLA or ADA, you want to make sure this doesn't look like you're retaliating for these legally protected leaves. Consult an attorney before acting if either one is relevant.

Okay. I don't have good books off the top of my head, but here is what I would do.

 1. Make sure there are two people in the room when you have this discussion. The door should be shut for privacy, but under no circumstances should this discussion happen one on one. One person can remain completely silent, but you need a witness.

2. Explain, explicitly what the problem is. You can't say "You're mean and no one likes you." You can says

  • You cut people off mid-sentence
  • You told Karen she was ugly.
  • You yelled at Steve in a meeting in front of a client
  • etc, etc, etc.

3. Has she been told any of this before? I don't think so, from your letter, so she will be SHOCKED and she will DENY that she has done any of that. She will speak about her accomplishments.

4. Acknowledge her accomplishments, but state clearly that this is about her attitude.

5. Don't get defensive. It's very easy to get caught up in defending yourself. You don't need to do this. You can restate the problems and reiterate that this behavior needs to change.

6. Present her with written documentation of what she

  • has done wrong
  • needs to do differently
  • how this will be monitored
  • what the consequences will be if she doesn't fix the problem
7. If she makes improvements, be prepared to acknowledge them. You need to be sure that if you are giving her 30 days to improve and she does improve that you don't fire her. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen.

8. If she doesn't make improvements, terminate her on day 30. Don't wait until day 32 because someone is out of town. Don't put it off a week to give her one more chance. Day 30 is her last day of work.

9. Terminate her in a straight forward fashion. Here is a sample dialogue:

Mary, as you know, you have been on a 30 day probation. The terms of this are spelled out here: [present documentation]. As we have discussed, you have not met requirements 1, 3, 4, 5, and 8. Therefore today is your last day of work. Would you like assistance packing up your things?
10. Don't hover unless you feel that she will cause real problems. How you treat someone when you fire them is extremely important to the financial health of your organization.

11. After she's gone, tell everyone that she is gone. Don't let people guess. You don't need to tell them she was fired--that part is obvious. Again, sample dialogue:

Today was Mary's last day of work. We appreciate the work she did for us and wish her well in her new endeavors. We're going to begin the process of hiring someone new to take her place. In the mean time, we hope everyone can pitch in to cover her old responsibilities.

However, something I would probably do in this situation, is prepare a nice severance package. If you've offered severance before, follow the same guidelines. Otherwise, give her the opportunity to walk out the door now with 6 (or more) weeks' salary, in exchange for a signed, general release. If she says no, you just proceed with the above.

The advantage of this is that if she takes it, she just goes away. Yes, it costs money, but honestly, you're losing money by having her on board. It totally reduces the chances of any law suit.

If you go this route, make sure you get a real labor and employment lawyer to draft the general releases. Most employment laws are state based and they change constantly.

Also, don't fight unemployment if you do end up terminating her. I'm not saying she deserves it, I'm saying that fighting unemployment dramatically increases the chances of her filing a lawsuit. Even if she has no case, you have to hire a lawyer to defend yourselves.

People are much more likely to behave well when they feel you're being fair. The may think you're wrong, but at least you're being fair.

For Further Reading:

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

Photo by eek the cat, Flickr cc 2.0

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