Written by attorney Stephen Robert Holden

What To Do When An Employee Refuses To Sign A Document

Emboldened by the ever-growing list of “employee rights" and/or bad advice, it has become commonplace for employees to refuse to sign documents presented by an employer. It occurs most frequently when the document deals with the employee’s poor performance such as a disciplinary memo, but can also occur when the employer is distributing more mundane documents such as new policies or handbooks. Obviously, the refusal is not a positive interaction between the employee and employer. In the best case, it indicates a simple miscommunication. In the worst case, it indicates a broken relationship that is headed for litigation.

The negative impact of an employee’s refusal to sign can be avoided in most cases by adopting a four-step approach. First, evaluate the purpose of having the document signed and determine if it is really necessary. Second, determine whether demanding an employee signature on the document is a lawful and reasonable directive. Third, clearly communicate with employees about the contents of the document and the reasons for the signature. Finally, evaluate all of the facts, including the employee’s reasons for refusing to sign, before taking disciplinary action.

Step One: Determine the Purpose for Obtaining a Signature

Evaluate the purpose of having the employee sign the document. Is the employee being asked to sign the document as acknowledgment that he or she has received it only or is the signature required as part of an agreement between the employer and the employee?

If the purpose of having the employee sign the document is for acknowledgement of receipt only, consider whether the employee’s signature is actually necessary. This will often depend on the importance of the document. If you are simply notifying employees of routine tasks such as shutting down the his or her computer at the end of each day or that the company will be closed for an upcoming holiday, consider foregoing the employee signature and have a supervisor or manager create a list of employees that received the document.

If, however, the document is an important update to the employer’s policies or a binding dispute resolution process and the employee’s signature demonstrates agreement to abide by the policy or process, it becomes more essential to having the employee sign the document. In this situation an employer should proceed to step two.

Step Two: Determine if Demanding the Signature is a Lawful and Reasonable Directive

California law prohibits employers from demanding that employees sign documents which are for an unlawful purpose or otherwise violate strong public policies. For instance, an employer may not ask employees to sign a document in which the employee agrees to never take any complaint over wages to the Labor Commissioner. On the other hand, it is well within an employer’s power to require employees to acknowledge receiving communications from the employer. Determining whether or not the demand for a signature is a lawful and reasonable directive depends upon the content of the document and the wording associated with the employee’s signature. If the purpose is simply acknowledgment of receipt, make sure that is clearly communicated next to the signature line. If the purpose is binding agreement on the part of the employee, make sure the subject of agreement and the terms of agreement are permissible under the law. Once these content considerations are addressed and the document is properly drafted, the employer can proceed to step three.

Step Three: Clearly Communicate with Employees about the Document

Before presenting any document requiring an employee signature, it is advisable to clearly communicate with employees about the content of the document and the purpose and effect of the required signature. For documents presented to a number of employees, the initial communication may be accomplished by holding a company or department meeting and training supervisors or managers about the documents and how to address employee concerns. For documents presented to an individual employee, a private meeting is advisable. In either case, some level of personal, oral communication is advisable along with an opportunity to questions to be raised. It is also advisable to allow employees a reasonable amount of time to review the document without pressure before signing it. For example, allowing employees one week to review an updated employee handbook before signing and turning in their acknowledgment of receipt and agreement to abide by the company’s policies will provide employees time to review the updates and not feel pressured or rushed into signing a document that may not be familiar.

If, after the initial communication, an employee still refuses to sign the document, consider holding a one-on-one meeting with employee and have the employee explain why he or she is refusing to sign the document. Often the reason for the employee’s refusal is due to a misunderstanding regarding the terms of the document and a one-on-one meeting allows the employer to clear up any misunderstanding, address the employee’s concerns, get the signature and avoid the need for any disciplinary action.

Step Four: Evaluate All the Facts before Taking Disciplinary Action

If an employee still refuses to sign the document after the one-on-one meeting, the employer has a range for options, from terminating the employee for insubordination to documenting the employee’s obligations notwithstanding the refusal to ignoring the employee’s refusal all together and carrying on with business as usual. The best course of action will depend upon all the facts surrounding the refusal. First and foremost, consider the legitimacy of the employee’s stated reasons and revisit the legitimacy of the demand for a signature. The employer should take detailed notes of the meeting(s) recording the employee’s stated reason(s) for refusing to sign and what was explained to the employee.

The California Court of Appeals recently confirmed that an employee’s intentional refusal to obey an employer’s directive to sign for a document can qualify as “misconduct" under California law. An employee who has engaged in “misconduct" is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits and will have little success in pursuing a wrongful termination claim. While demanding a signature acknowledging receipt of a company policy or disciplinary memo is certainly a lawful and reasonable directive, employers should evaluate the situation before terminating the employee and should make sure that the communications and documentation show that the employee’s refusal was not the result of a misunderstanding or carelessness on the part of the employee.

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