9 Warning Signs an Employee Needs to be Let Go

sinking-ship“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 vested 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.

I recently met with a group of HR professionals and line managers to debrief employee termination situations. As we reviewed the cases at hand, the following nine signs emerged as warning signals, that had they been heeded early on in the employee’s career, a termination decision could have been made much earlier in the process that would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and the company a lot of money. Any one of these signs is alarming in and of itself, but when you combine all of them together…lookout! That ship is sinking fast.

Nine Warning Signs an Employee Needs to be Let Go

1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with their boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at his best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get him back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given the employee another chance by giving him 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 him to provide the support he needs. 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.” (No offense to all the Joe’s out there.)

4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing him 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 his poor performance. Troubled 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 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 his job, but if he can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where his contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama he 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 his criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself in 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.

Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to look in the mirror and honestly answer this question: “Have I done everything possible to help this person succeed?” If the answer to that question is “no,” then you owe it to the employee, and yourself, to put more effort into turning things around. However, if the answer is “yes,” then it’s time to make the hard decision and let them go.

21 Comments on “9 Warning Signs an Employee Needs to be Let Go

  1. It is so difficult having the conversation when leaders need to let someone go. Choosing the best words and place to have that challenging dialogue is essential.

    All your points, Randy are terrific about recognizing the signs. The biggest “red flag” I see is when there is a poor culture fit for an individual. The thing is that person might be very successful in another organization with a different type of culture, one that reflects more of their values.

    Great post!

    • You’re right Terri. The organizational culture can have a dramatic effect on an employee’s success. I’ve seen high performers in one organization struggle when they move to another because of the culture.

      You make an especially good point about choosing the proper time and place for having this challenging conversation. No matter how much an employee may “deserve” to be let go, everyone deserves to have this news delivered with tact and respect.

      Thanks for adding your wonderful insights!


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  3. I recently had to let go an employee today and sometimes I don’t know if I made the right decision, however all of these signs definitely made me think that I made the correct decision. Great post!

    • I’m sorry you had to let someone go. Even if it’s needed, it’s still a difficult process for everyone involved.

      I’m glad my article helped provide some validation that you did the right thing.

      Best wishes,


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  5. A few other signs:

    – Arriving late, leaving early
    – Doing a lot of extra-curricular activities during work hours
    – Not really caring about the job
    – Being obnoxious to his teammates
    – Scheduling interviews during working hours!

  6. All points are spot on. Excellent article (as usual) Randy. I have experienced these type of difficult people at work. Sadly their behaviour is so offensive that even the leaders failed to take action and thus allowing to create a bad environment and then it becomes part of the ‘culture’.

    • Thanks for your comments Sam. As you mention, if leaders fail to address these issues, they run the risk of having them become ingrained in the culture of the team/organization. It’s much harder to change the organization culture than it is to let go a toxic employee.

      Best regards,


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  10. These 9 signs are exactly what I have been seeing an employee I’ve managed for 4 years and have been trying to work with our HR to try and protect other employees but my HR is so unresponsive and exhausting to work with. How can I move this along with with or without HR so that this person can exit the company sooner rather than later?
    My manager hired this individual 4 years ago, not myself. I have kept documentation and there is a long track record with every person that has worked in our area having negative interactions with this person. This person is not the right fit for our company culture and says so almost daily but they refuse to quit. What can be done apart from me and everyone else quitting instead?

    • Hello Jennifer,

      Ugh, how exhausting! I feel your pain.

      Do you have the power and ability to fire this person or do you have to get approval from your boss or HR? If you need approval, have you made a formal request and presented your rationale in a way that shows the negative impact the person is having on the team and organization? It will help to quantify the impacts as much as possible. For example, lost revenue, mistakes that cost money, people who have left because of this individual, negative impact on customers, etc. Some employers are risk-averse and don’t want to fire people for fear of wrongful termination lawsuits. It may be helpful to consider offering the individual a separation package and let them make the choice of taking the separation package and resigning, or be fired without any severance.

      Remember that you’re doing the right thing and use that knowledge to keep you motivated.

      My best,


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