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Can You Fire an Employee for Talking Bad About the Company?

Anyone who has ever worked a job has the occasional bad day. And we’ve also all seen those toxic employees who just always seem to complain maliciously. But as a boss, can you fire an employee for talking bad about the company?

Yes, you can fire an employee for talking bad about the company if it happens at the workplace. In an At-Will state, employees can be fired at any time for any reason. But even in other states, creating a hostile work environment is definitely grounds for disciplinary action, up to, and including termination.

I’ve had the benefit of over two decades of experience in management positions at Whole Foods Market. Naturally, I’ve hired thousands of people and fired a few people too.

In this article, I’ll share highly effective strategies you could apply.

Let’s get started.

What do you do when an employee talks bad about you or the company?

First off, evaluate how serious their comments are. Grousing after a bad day or a day when your staff was shorthanded is normal. If it’s not serious, dismiss it. But, if it’s serious, it’s time to nip it in the bud.

After all, a toxic employee left unchecked can destroy the morale of the productive members of your team. The good people on your team are counting on you to keep the morale high in the workplace. If someone really negative, bitter, or angry is just allowed to continue that makes you look bad, not the toxic employee.

Then, take an informal meeting with the employee. Let them know what you heard (but not who you heard it from). Then listen to their own side of the story.

Encourage them to come directly to you with future issues or complaints. Make sure you have an open-door policy and don’t get super defensive when provided with critical feedback.

If the incident occurs again, have a formal meeting with them.

The formal meeting would ideally be:

  • Witnessed by another person in a leadership or HR role
  • Documented (in case you later need to escalate it or let them go)
  • Cut and dry (stick to facts)
  • Make sure they are clear than any future incidents will lead to disciplinary action that could ultimately result in them being fired

Some might realize they’ve messed up, big time, and may apologize, while others may act as if they’ve been misunderstood and that what you’ve heard is not actually what they said.

If an employee is remorseful, it’s okay to forgive and let them know that what they’ve done is unacceptable and should not repeat itself.

I know what you might be thinking: Can I fire someone if they persist in gossiping and bad-mouthing the company? That’s exactly what I addressed in-depth in a recent article of mine. I also gave practical suggestions on how you could get rid of workplace gossip. Just click that link to read it on my site.

But, first things first, what is a negative employee?

What is a toxic employee?

It’s quite simple: a toxic employee harms the business. They foster a hostile work environment that destroys a company’s morale, culture, and bottom line.

They come in different styles though:

  • There’s one who is hard to work with, who leaves misery in their wake
  • Some just like to stir up drama and gossip
  • Some are always late or sick, have a million excuses, and ultimate force their teammates to work harder to pick up their slack
  • Lastly, there’s the individual who sees nothing good in the company and loves telling anyone that’d listen.

Ultimately with this last kind, in most cases, their deep unhappiness is rooted in them and has nothing to do with the company, boss, or co-workers

Interestingly, some of them may be meeting certain performance goals, but the fact remains that they’re harming the business!

And as I mentioned above, when the bad eggs are left unchecked, the good eggs will either leave or sink to their level. Ultimately, they’ll come to blame you for not dealing with it much more so than the bad employee who started it.

Which states are At-Will states?

An at-will employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, with a few exceptions where it would violate federal employment law, such as discrimination. (source)

At the same time, at-will employees can quit at any time, without notice; so it works both ways.

There are a few exceptions though.

If you work in the public sector, are a union worker, or if you are refusing to violate public policy, you cannot be fired for no discernible reason.

A few states also have limitations in place, in addition to federal law.

If you are a citizen of one of the states listed below, you should check out those laws and regulations as it relates to employee’s rights. These states have various limitations and restrictions as it pertains to at-will employment.

Here are all of the at-will states:

Alabama Missouri
Alaska Nebraska
Arizona New York
California North Carolina
Delaware Pennsylvania
Florida Rhode Island
Georgia Texas
Indiana Utah
Louisiana Virginia
Massachusetts Wyoming

How do bad employees affect a business?

Bad employees are incredibly harmful to a business because they affect other employees negatively and may also be saying bad things about the company to outsiders. This is because what an employee says about a company carries a lot of weight since outsiders are likely to believe them.

And as you know, bad news spreads fast.

Imagine, for example, if a reporter were to interview such a bad employee and false information is offered and subsequently aired on T.V.

The negative tales could even find its way into the social media space, and that’s poison for any business because once it goes viral, it’d be extremely difficult to undo the harm. And as we all know, information reported on social media (or the internet at large) often gets accepted as fact, even if it’s totally off-base.

Even if these bad employees don’t talk to outsiders, they still do immense harm within the company. Their attitude gradually fosters a highly hostile work environment that affects morale and productivity negatively.

Ultimately, it will hurt employee loyalty, since some employees may start dreading being close to such toxic employees, so much so that it creates a stressful atmosphere for the former.

In fact, it may lead to reduced productivity. There are even cases where people leave the company because of such bad employees. This is understandable because when people have choices, they’d rather not work in an environment that makes them unhappy.

So, how do you approach such an employee?

What to say to an employee with a bad attitude

I always had a saying of “firm, fair, and consistent”.

In other words, be clear about your expectations, be clear about what happens if they fail to meet the expectations. Then hold everyone, yourself included, to the same standards. Don’t leave room for any ambiguity.

That just makes everything so much simpler.

Have face-to-face meetings with the employee, where you calmly discuss their negative attitude, and how it’s impacting or likely to impact other staff and the company. Stick to the facts, don’t get defensive, and stay calm; even if they don’t.

Ideally, there should be at least one other member of management or HR at this meeting.

This shows the employee in question the seriousness of the issue and the other person may be needed as a witness, someday. Also, make sure that while the door is closed (so the conversation stays private) that they are closest to the door (so they don’t feel or are later able to claim, they were trapped).

Remind them of the relevant sections of the company policy handbook. But, if there’s none, tell them about the few unwritten standards of behavior, expected of them in the workplace.

Ensure that your conversation with them is humane because how you treat one employee sends a signal to others. In an attempt to solve the problem, you don’t want to unwittingly foster an atmosphere of insecurity.

Tell them without mincing words you expect them to change, within a specific period, and that repeated offenses will lead to further disciplinary action that could ultimately result in them being terminated.

In effect, they are on probation. The fact is that most people won’t change unless they know there’d be negative consequences if they don’t.

But what happens if they refused to change?

How to fire a toxic employee

The first thing you’d need to do when you’re absolutely convinced a toxic employee must be fired is to ensure that your actions are in line with the company’s HR policies (if any) and the laws of the land.

The last thing you or the company needs is a protracted legal battle. This will also help when they inevitably file for unemployment.

If truth be told, firings are unpleasant for both parties.

In fact, they’re highly emotionally charged. Before or during the process, never allow the employee to annoy you to a point where you lose your temper or say or do anything they could use against you.

Keep the conversation brief, professional, and clear. 

After all, by the time you reach this point, and the decision has been made to fire them, the time for discussion and back and forth is done.

Of course, you also want to make sure that all their infractions have been adequately documented, and are reflected in their file. You can’t rely on only verbal exchanges. These can be easily misconstrued and distorted.

And, except in extremely rare cases, you don’t fire them after the first infraction.

You’d warn them, in writing, for the first two infractions. But, the third time it happens, it should also be the last time. Then, you’d be doing the right thing if you gave them the pink slip. A recent article of mine goes into details on the specifics.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Final Thoughts

Before you even consider firing an employee, it’s vital to note, that from a legal perspective, not all forms of toxicity are grounds for terminating the employment contract. And, you’d need to confirm if you’re operating in an ‘at-will’ state.

In such states, you can fire employees for any reason, as long as you’re not being discriminatory. So, it’s smart to consult an attorney if you’re not sure.

You’d want to fire them in a face-to-face meeting, even if they’ve done something terrible, they still deserve respect. The truth is that how you fire employees reflect on you and the company.

You’ll want to check out a recent article of mine where I shared details on why it’s not okay to fire employees on the phone, even though it’s legal. I also shared situations where that might be the only option. Just click that link to read it on my site.

Truth be told, dealing with toxic employees is extremely unpleasant for everyone.

But it has to be done. We’ve learned how to approach employees who are fond of saying negative things about a manager or the company.

We explored how to identify toxic employees and the immense harm they cause. We also looked at what to say to them, and lastly, what to do if they refused to change.

Jeff Campbell