Nine Warning Signs An Employee Needs To Be Let Go

You're Fired“I’m sorry, we need to let you go.”

Oomph! Those words feel like a punch to the gut of the employee on the receiving end, and for the leader delivering the bad news, those words create anxiety and many sleepless nights leading up to that difficult conversation.

No leader likes to see an employee fail on the job. From the moment we start the recruitment process, through interviewing, hiring, and training, our goal is to set up our employees for success. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expense to bring new people into the organization and ramp them up to full productivity so it’s in everyone’s best interest to see an employee succeed. Yet we all know there are situations that, for whatever reason, an employee struggles on the job and there isn’t much hope of turning it around.

Here are nine warning signs you have an employee that probably needs to be “shared with the competition:”

1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with the boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at her best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get her back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given someone another chance by giving them a change of scenery and it’s still not working out, you should be concerned. The scenery probably isn’t the problem.

2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the employee – We all have personality quirks and some people are more difficult to work with than others, but when an employee becomes cancerous to the morale and productivity of the team and everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells around the person for fear of incurring their wrath, you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a toxic, unpredictable employee.

3. Emotional instability – Part of being a mature adult is being able to manage your emotions and it’s critically important in a professional workplace. If you have an employee that demonstrates severe emotional mood swings on the job and in their relationships with others, you need to pursue the proper legal and ethical guidelines in dealing with the employee and getting them the support they need. Don’t ignore the behavior by chalking it up to the heat of the moment, the stress of the job, or excusing it by saying “Oh, that’s just Joe being Joe.”

4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing she is having significant trouble adapting to the culture of the organization. There is a natural transition time for any new employee, but if you’re constantly hearing the employee make negative comments about how the company operates and criticizing leadership, or not developing solid relationships with others and becoming part of the team, warning alarms should be going off in your head.

5. Blames others, makes excuses, and challenges authority – You know the incredibly loud sound of air raid sirens used in civil defense situations? That’s the sound you should be hearing if you have an employee with a track record of blaming others and making excuses for her poor performance. Failing employees will often challenge authority by trying to lay the blame at the boss’ feet by saying things like “You should have done this…” or “You didn’t address that problem…” or whatever the case may be. If you have an employee who always seems to be involved in drama, ask yourself “What (or more appropriately ‘who’) is the common denominator in these situations?”

6. Distorts or manipulates the truth – I’ve dealt with employees who were very skilled at manipulating or distorting the truth. In whatever difficult situation they were in, they would find a kernel of truth to justify and excuse their involvement to the point that I would feel compelled to side with them. I learned you have to be discerning and consistent in your approach to dealing with manipulative people and make sure you document your interactions so you have sufficient data to support your termination decision.

7. Unseen gaps in performance – One of the most challenging situations is when an employee seems to be performing well by outside appearances, but when you explore behind the scenes you discover there are gaps in her performance. Maybe it’s sloppy work, not following correct procedures, or even worse, being intentionally deceptive or unethical. Be careful, things may not always be as they seem.

8. A trail of broken relationships – Employees don’t have to be BFF’s with all of their coworkers, but they do need to respect others and be able to work together. A person may be a high-performer in the tasks of her job, but if she can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where her contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama she creates.

9. Passive-aggressive behavior – You know those smiley-face emoticons at the end of slightly sarcastic and critical emails? A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior where the sender is trying to couch her criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself is so many ways that appear to be innocuous in and of themselves. Veiled jokes, procrastination, sullenness, resentment, and deliberate or repeated failure to follow-through on tasks are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Be careful…very careful.

The number one job for a leader is to help his or her employees succeed. Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that everything possible has been done to help the employee succeed. If the leader has done his or her part and the employee situation hasn’t improved, the best thing for both parties is to help the employee transition to a new opportunity.

14 Comments on “Nine Warning Signs An Employee Needs To Be Let Go

  1. Very effective article. I will add the new information to my toolbox

  2. Good article however the word “sorry” in the opening line is one you never, ever use when releasing an employee from an organization. If you’re “sorry”, why are you taking the action. You need to be respectful and it’s fine to show empathy, but saying sorry is accepting some of the blame and should the employee choose to pursue legal action, that one word can be held against you, whether in arbitration or a court of law.

    • Lauri, that is an excellent point! You can bet that I won’t use that phrase again should I find myself in that situation.

      Thanks for adding your expertise.


  3. This whole article is all to familiar it helps knowing that other people go through the same thing and it’s not just me thinking I was making the wrong decision,
    All of this is great knowledge.
    Thank You Randy
    Thank You to Lauri

  4. Your post is made-to-order for managers struggling to put together the pieces that affirm what their gut is likely telling them–that their employee needs to find other employment. Your phrase, “be shared with the competition” is priceless and another perspective to make it plain that “now’s the time.” A great read. ~Dawn

  5. Randy, your post is made-to-order for managers trying to piece together what their gut is telling them–that their employee needs to find other employment. Your phrase to “be shared with the competition” is priceless and another perspective to confirm with managers that “now’s the time.” A great read. ~Dawn

    • Thank you Dawn! Your point is right on – these symptoms confirm what we’re feeling in our gut. I’ve ignored those gut feelings in the past and the result has been just a delay in the inevitable…needing to make a change.

      I’m glad you found this helpful!


  6. Randy, great article. I read it twice to remember all the points 🙂

    What I saw in my carreer so far is, that many times supervisors don’t want to see the issues and the team is breaking from inside – people feel bad, productivity decreases but the leader/manager still doesn’t take action until is too late. Or worse, they take a bad action and the rat inside the team is promoted or praised. For other team members, the situation is hopeless.

    • Great points Peter. These are difficult situations to manage and it’s understandable why leaders often delay, but that doesn’t make it a good strategy for dealing with the situation.

      I’ve found that dealing with the issues promptly, directly, and caringly usually works better than ignoring it and hoping it works out on its own.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!


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