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Can I Fire An Employee For Their Attitude?

By Nancy Owen, PHR, Senior HR Consultant, East Coast Risk Management 

We are often being asked by clients if they should fire an employee for having a bad attitude.employee attitude

When you work with a disgruntled, negative, or an employee with a bad attitude, it can be hard on management and coworkers to have to deal with. But, can you fire someone simply because of a bad attitude? Bad attitudes can create a toxic work environment. Employees with bad attitudes impact the bottom line and eventually can cause your business to suffer. Their behavior and actions are disruptive to the workplace and destructive to employee morale.

But what about a lazy employee, an employee who gossips or is a troublemaker or even the employee who does not want to talk to anyone?

The answer is… it depends. The issues involved around a termination are complicated, but if you handle them properly, you may be able to reduce the chance that your organization will have to spend a lot of money in legal fees to defend the matter.

Before you terminate an employee be sure you have good reasons for the termination, and that it is supported by documentation.

Here is some helpful information to consider.

  • Has the employee signed a contract? Or was there an implied contract?

An implied contract is a legally binding obligation that derives from the actions, conduct, or circumstances of one or more parties in an agreement. It is assumed to exist, and no written or verbal confirmation is necessary. For example, saying statements such as “you will always have a job with us.”

  • Are they represented by a union?
  • Is the person in a protected class? (Race, Color, Religion or creed. National origin or ancestry. Sex. Age. Physical or mental disability. Veteran status.)
  • Past practices are important as well. Maybe you’ve set a precedent and for the last 20 years your organization has never fired anyone unless they performed an egregious act. If you do there may be a consequence for your company to suddenly start getting tough and discharging people just for a bad attitude or negativity.
  • Have they just filed a worker’s comp claim? FMLA? ADA?

Many states prohibit firing an employee for reasons that dismiss the employee protection laws. This means you can’t term an employee for a bad attitude, if the real reason is that the person filed a workers’ compensation claim. Similarly, you can’t fire a whistle-blower- a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity. Or the employee refused to perform activity against the law such as, refusing to work off the clock or work on equipment with the safety features unarmed.

  • What does it state in your employee handbook? An employee handbook is important as it provides standardization of personnel and benefit policies, preventing misunderstandings, complaints and job dissatisfaction out of misinterpretation of personnel and benefit policies by employees. If you have a policy, make sure you follow it.

If you do have an employee whose behavior is having a negative impact on the department, you need to do something about it. You will want to react to the behavior sooner rather than later, so the negativity does not spread and so productivity is not interrupted.

Set up a meeting to talk with your employee. You can begin by reminding  your employee that in addition to performing their job duties, that your company policy is to respect the rights and feelings of others and refrain from behavior that is harmful to themselves or co-workers or the company. Let them know that a negative attitude affects all of those. Let them know it is disrupting the team, not contributing to productivity.

Discuss how their behavior affects their team, and the company. You may want to outline some productivity or goals that the behavior has affected. By doing so, the employee can understand the impact they are having.

Set a very clear expectation by reviewing the company’s values and policies and make sure they understand what will happen if the behavior continues. In the end you may just find out that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

But, if you address a bad attitude for one employee, although each case with be unique, remember to be consistent in how you deal with those employees to eliminate the risk of a claim against your organization. For example, if you react quickly when Joe displays a bad attitude, but you let another employee do it over and over again… you can be seen as  giving preferential treatment.

In summation, never take anything at face value. You may think an employee is being difficult, but, there may be a legitimate reason for their bad attitude. The only way to find out is to talk to your employees. Set clear expectations for them and hold them accountable. If you can work through the issue, you may be able to turn the situation around.


If you are an employer with questions about anything relating to human resources, safety, or workers’ compensation, contact East Coast Risk Management by calling 724-864-8745 or emailing us at

Disclaimer: The information provided on this web site is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Use of and access to this Web site do not create an attorney-client relationship between East Coast Risk Management or our employment law attorney and the user or browser.