How to Let Go of a Misbehaving Employee

work theft

Employee misbehavior is unwanted in the workplace. Although problematic workers can be tolerated by their colleagues up to a certain point, depending on their offense, there comes a time that management steps in because of the harm they do to the organization.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) says that problematic employees can cost a company up to $8,000 daily due to a drop in employee morale and team collaboration, trust, employee productivity, and reduced output and innovation.

But misbehaving workers shouldn’t be confused with poor performers. While poor performance deals with the inability to accomplish a job or finish it according to the employer’s expectations, misconduct deals with behavior.

Misbehavior pertains to negligent or intentional conduct that violates company rules, policies, and procedures.

A Futurelearn introductory lesson on the subject categorizes organizational misbehavior into five general types:

  • production: absenteeism, tardiness, loafing or loitering, rule-breaking
  • interpersonal: bullying, aggressive behavior, incivility (rudeness, disrespectful speech, physical intimidation), sexual harassment
  • intrapersonal: workaholism, workplace problem drinking, drug abuse
  • political: politicking, misuse of power, favoritism, impression management
  • property: vandalism, theft, espionage, computer hacking

Impacts of Misbehavior

Lower Productivity

The results of a joint research by Thunderbird School of Global Management Professor Christine Pearson and Georgetown University Associate Professor Christine Porath released in 2013 supported the findings of CCL.

Forty-eight percent of the 800 managers and employees surveyed by the researchers said that they intentionally decreased work effort due to rudeness.

Forty-seven percent of respondents intentionally reduced the amount of time they spent at work, while 38% intentionally lowered the quality of their output.

Bad Reputation

Results of the Pearson-Porath study also revealed that 25% of survey participants endured rudeness in the workplace and took out their frustrations on their clients.

Clients can transfer to your competitors when news about misbehaving employees reaches the rest of your sector. Industry colleagues may question your company’s leadership, hiring, and management practices.

High Employee Turnover

Work Institute estimates that the cost of a departing employee is a third of that worker’s salary. Some of your staff may leave due to problematic or misbehaving co-workers.

A poll by Weber Shandwick titled “Civility in America VII” released in 2016 said that almost 25% of employees left their jobs due to incivility. If they do, employers have to find ways to ensure their job tasks are completed until they’re able to find a replacement and train the new hire.

Why Some Employers Delay Termination

Firing employees can be an emotionally difficult task, says Jay Conger, author on leadership.

But beyond the fear of having difficult conversations or losing the misbehaving worker who may otherwise be a top performer, management may avoid firing employees right away to avoid legal risks.

Some companies would rather wait for workers to walk away to avoid facing possible discrimination lawsuits or paying unemployment benefits or a severance package, which some employees can claim when they are terminated.

Taking Action

Any disrespectful behavior and insubordination must be addressed as quickly as possible to preserve employee morale and to prevent miscreants from feeling justified in continuing or escalating disruptive acts. Disciplinary action must start after one event in cases of public misbehavior.

A company should have a progressive disciplinary action policy that explains the steps to be taken for cases of misconduct or failure to perform.

The disciplinary process must be documented by supervisors or managers every step of the way. At the same time, employees involved should always be informed of any disciplinary action — the stages, consequences, and corrective actions. Workers should also know that they have the right to appeal.

What are the steps involved in progressive discipline?

Verbal Warning

State the exact nature of the misconduct, why or how it violates company policy, and any corrective action that the worker should take. Be specific when you ask your employee to stop or improve negative actions.

The HR department must be notified of the warning. If you anticipate some difficulty, an HR representative can be invited to be part of this first stage.

Formal Written Warning

In this second stage, fill out the necessary form and describe the incident and corrective action. The form is shown to the employee, who needs to read and sign it.

Formal Disciplinary Meeting

A meeting with HR should be set if miscreants persist with their conduct. HR investigates the issue after the problem is discussed.

In other offices, bosses send a final warning to the employee, preceded by one to two written warnings. In the last warning, the worker’s superior specifies the corrective action expected from the employee and how this wasn’t accomplished.

Suspension or probation

In this stage, employers give the disruptive worker a final chance to change.

Management must take care to follow the company’s disciplinary action policy, to avoid legal risks such as wrongful dismissal claims. Business Management Daily warns that the following may contribute to a constructive discharge claim:

  • a demotion
  • reduction in income or work duties
  • reassignment to degrading or menial work
  • transfer to a job under a young supervisor
  • involuntary transfer to less desirable position
  • badgering, harassment, or humiliation by the employer
  • offers of early retirement or encouragement to retire
  • offers of continued employment on terms that are below the employee’s status
  • threat of violence or actual physical assault
  • threat of termination


Make sure you’ve consulted employment laws before deciding to fire your staff. Prepare and compile all your written records supporting your decision.

Personally meet the employee. Don’t fire anyone through phone, email, or printed letter.

Ask an HR rep to join you during the termination meeting to answer possible questions from the employee to be terminated. Bring in a witness as well to help management in case the erring worker challenges the termination later on.

During the meeting, stick to the facts, and summarize the job-related reasons for the dismissal using your documents so that the employee will have little to no room to dispute. Avoid using harsh language that may inflame the issue.

Let employees offer their side of the story, and don’t interrupt if they vent some emotion.

When to Do ‘Fast Firing’

There are instances when it’s better to fire the worker on the spot than make them go through progressive discipline.

Atty. Gerald Hathaway of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP recommends immediate termination in the following cases:

  • assault
  • fighting
  • willful destruction of property
  • serious insubordination: for example, refusing a direct work order
  • dishonesty
  • theft from anyone, regardless of amount
  • being under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • falsification of records

Hathaway said that companies face liability risks by allowing intoxicated workers who drove to the office to still complete their shifts because the drunk employees might injure others during their shift or after work if they figure in a road accident.

Human resources and employment law consultant Christine Walters noted that a growing number of managers find it more cost-effective to skip the progressive discipline process than spend time and effort to coach, counsel, and correct disruptive employees.

OgleTree Deakins’ Atty. Janice Dubler advises that employee handbooks must list infractions leading to immediate termination.

Companies must establish an organizational culture that upholds ethical behavior above profits. There’s more to business than the bottom line, and when managers communicate and practice ethical leadership, productivity will follow naturally.