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What Can You Do If an Employee Refuses to Sign a Written Warning?

Published on 2/14/2019 12:00:00 AM
What Can You Do If an Employee Refuses to Sign a Written Warning?

You’ve taken the proper steps to document an employee’s poor performance. But when you ask the employee to sign the disciplinary notice, he refuses. Now what?

Don’t worry. You have other options to indicate you’ve communicated your concerns with an employee. But before we discuss them, let’s consider why it’s important to document employee discipline in the first place.

Why It’s Important to Document Disciplinary Action

When it comes to employee discipline, issuing warnings can be challenging. No one really likes to hear it, and it can be difficult to deliver. You may wonder if it’s worth the discomfort.

In short, the answer is “yes.” Documenting employee performance problems can protect your company if an employee claims he or she was let go for unfair or illegal reasons (such as age or race discrimination, or becoming pregnant, for example), or unfairly passed over for promotion.

In addition, if the disciplinary issues venture into an area such as sexual harassment or criminal activity (like allegations of theft or embezzlement), immediate action — even suspension or termination — along with written documentation of your disciplinary actions may help protect your company from liability.

By keeping a document trail that records problems and unmet improvements, you can show valid, legal reasons for ending employment. From a larger perspective, following a system of progressive discipline and conducting ongoing performance reviews helps employees know where they stand, in addition to providing guidance regarding your expectations.

Heading off Resistance

Sometimes employees refuse to sign a disciplinary notice because they think the assessment is unfair or disagree with it. That’s fine. Make sure you let the employee know that by signing, you’re not asking for agreement, or an admission of any wrongdoing. Rather, it’s to show receipt of the notice.

Setting the stage may also help. Don’t just call an employee into your office, place a written warning in front of them and demand a signature. Let the employee know you’d like to have a disciplinary meeting to discuss problems and at the end will ask for a response.

Strive to keep the meeting productive by clearly stating what the concerns or problems are, without letting emotions or subjective opinions get in the way. Avoid discussing unrelated issues or personality flaws. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Present the facts, such as the number of times deadlines were missed, or shifts were started late
  • Explain how or why these issues violate your company rules or job requirements, or negatively impact coworkers or the workplace
  • Describe the steps you are taking in accordance with your policies
  • Discuss what the expectations or next steps for the employee are
  • List any deadlines or compliance dates for improvements or changes if relevant

Then, ask the employee to acknowledge that he or she was told about these issues. You can find some more tips for documenting performance issues here.

Alternative Approaches to Signatures

If, in spite of your best efforts, an employee refuses to sign a disciplinary warning, here are some options to consider.

Adjust the wording
Employees may be more likely to sign the document if they understand exactly what they’re signing. To help make this clear, try adjusting the wording above the signature. State that signing is an acknowledgment of having received and read the warning, but does not necessarily imply agreement with the statements.
Consider separating the signature box from the body of the disciplinary report. For example, the signature box may state: “My signature indicates that I have received and read this report. It does not indicate agreement with the contents.”
You could also include a separate section that allows the employee to write comments or make a statement about the warning, with an additional signature line.
Ask for a rebuttal
If an employee refuses to sign the disciplinary report or warning, you might ask him or her to submit a signed rebuttal document instead. The rebuttal should reference the concerns raised in the written warning. This shows that the employee was notified about the problem. It might shed light on additional issues you need to address, as well. Keep it on file with the original document as proof the employee received a warning.
Document the refusal
Another approach you can take if an employee refuses to sign the disciplinary document is to make a notation with the time and date the employee refused to sign it. You could ask the employee to sign a document stating that he or she has elected not to sign the disciplinary warning (this sort of wording may be less adversarial than saying “refused to sign.”) Prepare an alternative document with a statement such as “I disagree with the disciplinary statement” or “I have elected not to sign the disciplinary document” and ask the employee to sign it.
Get a witness
If the alternatives fail, you may wish to call in another person, such as a manager, as a witness. In the presence of the witness, ask the employee to acknowledge that the disciplinary warning was discussed and the employee has chosen not to sign it. Then, both you and the witness should sign a statement such as “Met with employee on [date] to discuss contents of this document, but employee elected not to sign.” Both you and the witness should sign and date the document.

Managing Employee Discipline Issues

Handling employee discipline issues the right way can mean more satisfactory outcomes for everyone. The Progressive Discipline Smart App from HRdirect can help you follow best practices. It will guide you in addressing employee discipline issue promptly and appropriately, as well as providing the necessary backup in case termination becomes your only option.

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Ashley Kaplan, Esq.
Presented by: Ashley Kaplan, Esq.,
Senior Employment Law Attorney
A record number of state and local employment laws were passed in 2018, and many more are pending. With each new law that passes, employers must struggle to understand and comply with ever-increasing obligations.
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