How to Fire an Employee With a Bad Attitude


As a store or department manager, eventually, you have to reprimand or even fire someone. The worst of these situations often lead to us wondering how to fire an employee with a bad attitude.

Here’s what I learned in my 15+ years in store leadership positions:

Address the issue first verbally, then in written form. Document the issue on paper at least once with a period of time to correct the behavior, then issue a final warning. Always make consequences clear. When no improvement is made, termination is both just, legal, and should not be a surprise to anyone.

But there’s a lot more to know about how to deal with bad attitudes and problem employees. More importantly, we’ll get into the right and wrongs ways to deal with toxic employees. Done right, you can save yourself unemployment costs and hearings.

Let’s get started.

Employee issues in the workplace

Virtually all issues an employee might have can be separated into 2 categories:

  1. Poor Work Performance
  2. Policy Violations

The latter is a whole lot clearer. For example, if an employee steals, or is chronically late, or calling out sick beyond what your company policy allows for. Those are clear cut, not up for debate or interpretation. Either the employee did those things or did not.

Work performance issues, on the other hand, include a whole lot of things that are subjective, such as:

  • Slow work speed
  • Poor customer service
  • Creating a hostile work environment
  • Sloppy work
  • Having a bad attitude

While the policy violations are quick and easy to deal with, performance issues like a bad attitude are slow and messy to deal with.

How do you change an employee’s bad attitude?

In short, you can’t. But most of us in leadership roles have tried.

It ends up being very time consuming and is very unlikely to change anything. In the end, you will find yourself spending a lot of time on this employee with a bad attitude.

When we spend a ton of time on those “squeaky wheels” we are, by default, NOT spending time with the productive and happy members of your team; the ones who are really driving the business forward instead of into the ground.

That’s not only not fair to the good people, but it’s counter-productive to the success of the business.

For starters, what a “bad attitude” is might mean different things to different people. It also requires some validation and corroboration, especially because a store manager may not work directly with this person and may not be seeing it first hand.

The other thing to know is that you can train virtually any employee with a good attitude to do anything. But it’s virtually impossible to train an employee to have a positive attitude unless it stems directly to some genuine mistreatment at work and you correct that.

How do you address an employee with an attitude problem?

Even though you’ll be unlikely to change an employee’s bad attitude, it’s not right to just fire them without any sort of due process.

Everyone has the capacity to change. But unfortunately, as my old friend who was high up in HR at Whole Foods used to say “there’s no better predictor of future behavior than past behavior“.

So even though you aren’t likely to turn them around, it’s crucial for the overall health of your workforce, and from a legal standpoint, to go through the steps and do this the right way.

After all, all your good employees know this person is a problem. But if you just fire them outright, it sends a message even to the good employees that they too could be fired at any time for any reason.

You don’t want your employees afraid of you.

So this is the process I followed for virtually ANY performance issue with any employee. Your company may have different rules or systems. It’s also possible the state or country you live in may have different rules. When in doubt always consult someone in HR in your company or a labor law attorney.

But this how I handled employees with a bad attitude:

1. I started with a verbal 1-on-1 conversation

This conversation, like all HR-related conversations, would be private and not held on the sales floor or in front of their peers. I would address the issue, but mostly ask questions. I find asking questions, rather than making accusations or statements, puts people more at ease and more likely to talk about what’s really going on.

Make no mistake. In 99% of the cases, a bad attitude has NOTHING to do with you or the job. It’s something going on in their life on a personal level and they haven’t dealt with it. But as leaders and managers, we can’t ask them about their personal life or make personal recommendations (at least in any official capacity).

At the end of the conversation, make it clear what has been observed (but do not name any names of their peers who may have reported it to you). Then make it clear what the consequences will be if it happens again (and it will).

2. I would issue the 1st written warning

When an issue arises again, now is the time to take it more seriously. Again in private, but this time with a witness who is in a leadership or HR role. As a matter of course, always position yourself and any official witnesses such that you are not blocking the exit to the room where the discussion is being held.

The employee must never feel like they are being held or unable to leave if they wish. Of course, if they were to leave before being dismissed, that too is a violation which will need to be addressed.

This conversation should be shorter and less casual. You let them know what was observed, that it’s unacceptable, and what the complete process looks like if they continue the behavior. Do give them the opportunity to explain their side of the story, and to write it down if they choose. But limit the amount of time you give them for this as these type of people can often go one and on wasting everyone’s time.

In the end, they will sign the written warning as will you and the witness. If they refuse to sign (which is their right) you would note that on the form and still sign yourself with your witness.

3. I would issue a 2nd written warning

This would be issued exactly like the first one.

4. I would issue a final written warning

Like the previous two warnings, but this one should be clear that the next instance will result in immediate termination. The form would ideally indicate this as well, very clearly.

Make sure to keep copies of all documents in case the employee files for unemployment after you fire them. In most states, employees can file for unemployment for any reason.

That doesn’t mean they’ll get it, but the burden of proof will be on you, not them. So have a system where these documents are easily accessible.

I preferred to keep a paper copy in a locked file cabinet but also a scanned copy on my computer. But your company and HR department may have different systems or policies.

5. I would fire them

Firing should be short. The time for discussion has passed; it’s not up for debate, interpretation, or opinion. You speak, they listen. Stay calm and cool; never yell or raise your voice (even if they do). Again, have a witness present and document the firing on paper with all persons ideally signing the form.

You state the facts very clearly and logically without emption: “on this day, you did this, and as we discussed in your previous warnings, the result of this behavior is termination. You are now terminated from this position.”

Ask them to turn in any work items they may have in their possession. If they have a locker in a personal area, escort them to their locker and then see them to a public area.

If they make any sort of a scene ask them to leave immediately and if they refuse, call the police. You never want to escalate anything yourself or do anything other employees may witness that is anything less than 100% calm and professional.

If you follow all these steps, however, the employee will in no way be surprised they are being fired. And if that’s true, they are unlikely to make too big of a scene.

That’s usually reserved for when we, as store managers, didn’t clearly follow this process and the firing came as a surprise.

Can you get fired for a bad attitude?

In short, yes.

That doesn’t mean you can legally be fired on the spot. But generally, many employers have policies against what they call “creating a hostile work environment”. Now if an employee is just a little grumpy, or walks around like Eyeore, that probably doesn’t meet the test of that.

Most companies would be more likely to classify as bad attitude as being:

  • Backtalking supervisors
  • Gossiping about other’s personal information designed to embarrass, create animosity or discredit someone else
  • Verbally harassing others
  • Yelling or raising their voice to others
  • Using profanity directed at others

In those cases, while still following a series of disciplinary steps, an employee could definitely be fired.

What are the legal reasons to fire an employee?

This depends, assuming you’re in the US, on whether you live in what’s called an At-Will state or not.

At-will states have laws that basically say that the employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason without legal liability. That doesn’t mean the employee can’t file for and possibly get unemployment compensation, but it would prevent the employee from suing for wrongful termination.

Of course, if you’re needing advice in this area, always consult a labor law attorney.

Technically all states are at-will, but some have exceptions that others don’t have. So it doesn’t make sense just to list the at-will states.

Many states have laws on the books that state if the employer has a policy or handbook which specifies why an employee can be terminated, then that is legally binding.

Here, however, is a list of states that DON’T recognize that:

  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Then we have some states with a public policy exception.

Normally, for instance, an employer cannot fire someone who files a worker’s comp claim after they get injured on the job.

These states, however, do NOT recognize that right:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Nebraska
  • New York
  • Rhode Island

As I pointed out above, virtually all employee issues fall into either policy violation or poor work performance. In either case, typically following some due process most companies have in place, you can be fired for any of those reasons.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that if you’re working for an ethical employer, they are not just going to fire you for no reason with no warning. And if you do get fired from an unethical company, count yourself lucky you didn’t work there longer.

What qualifies as wrongful termination?

Wrongful termination, plain and simple is not when you think you shouldn’t have been fired. It’s also not when you feel you were fired unfairly.

No, wrongful termination is when you were fired illegally.

And by illegal, I’m referring to an employer who is violating either state or federal law when they terminate an employee.

As an example, if an employer fired someone on the basis of their race, gender, ethnic background, religion, or disability. As it stands now, while there could be state protections, there is no Federal protection on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Another illegal reason to fire someone is if they are a whistleblower or have filed a legal complaint against the employer. You also can’t be fired in most states (see the section above) for filing a worker’s compensation claim following an injury.

In other words, the employer cannot retaliate against an employee operating within legal guidelines.

Now on the one hand, if I were fired due to one of those reasons I wouldn’t want to work for those people anyway, and I’d count myself lucky to be rid of them.

But it’s also not right that they get away with it either. At this point, you would definitely want to hire a labor law attorney to see if your claim of wrongful termination has merit.

Did I cover everything you wanted to know about how to fire an employee with a bad attitude?

In this article, we took a look at the world of HR and running stores. We examined what is often every store or department managers least favorite task; firing someone.

Toxic employees with a bad attitude are a reality that hits every kind of business. In a way, it’s the worst kind of offense as it’s not as black and white as stealing or harassment. But dealing with employees with a bad attitude can be a huge time suck, so it’s crucial for all the great employees you have to not let it fester.

So here, we explored how to fire an employee with a bad attitude. And more importantly, how to do it in the right way so it’s fair to everyone and keeps you out of hot water with your company’s HR department and the state unemployment office.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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