Employer must be wise when asking employee to sign performance improvement plan

If you are going to ask an employee who has received a warning letter or performance improvement plan (P.I.P.) to sign somewhere at the bottom of the document, be careful how you do it.
At least once a week, I am consulted by an employee who has received such a document. Usually they agree with some but not all of the allegations with respect to their deficiencies as an employee. They want to know if they have to sign the document and whether they are hurting themselves if they do.
Their concern is that if they sign the document they will be agreeing to the content. They worry that if they are later terminated, the employer will take the position that there was just cause for their termination because of their performance and rely on the employee’s signature as an indication that the employee agreed that there were problems with their performance.  Employees do understand that if there is just cause for their termination, they do not get a severance package. What they often do not appreciate is that in order for the employer to establish just cause and terminate them for free, they have to do a lot more than establish poor performance. Fair or not, that’s the truth.
In the vast majority of circumstances, when I learn that the criticisms are not serious or they do not relate to some sort of willful misconduct, I tell them I don’t care if they sign the document because if they are ever terminated, there will not be just cause and they will still get a package.
By asking the employee to sign the document, however, the employer has created a power struggle where none should be taking place. Many employees think that by refusing to sign the letter they are invalidating the whole document. They are angry about criticisms they don’t think are valid and not signing is the only way they can think of to fight back and stand up for themselves.
When they refuse to sign, often an ill-advised human resource person will start to make threats about what will happen to them if they continue to refuse. A major schism is created which further harms an already deteriorating employment relationship.
And all of it is unnecessary.
If you have a disciplinary document to give to an employee and you want their signature, simply write under the signing line, “I acknowledge having received this document”. An employee will understand that they are not agreeing to everything in the document. They will not feel like they are losing face by signing it. Sometimes for legal reasons, and always for good human resource management reasons, an employer should put any serious concerns they have with the employee’s performance in writing. Their obligation is to communicate and to do it clearly. If the employee refuses to hear the message and things don’t improve, discipline should continue which might result in termination, whether or not a severance package has to be paid out. Even if there is no just cause and a package has to be paid, the employer will not have missed the chance to salvage that already trained employee.  Sometimes putting it in writing does bring the message home and makes all the difference.
Almost as important, if and when the day comes that the termination letter has to be delivered, the employer can do it with a clear conscience. But neither of those goals require the employee to confess their agreement.
I believe that when an employer puts words like, “I agree with and understand the above warning/performance improvement plan”, there is ego at stake. Management is trying to prove who is boss. It almost appears that they are so uncertain about their criticisms that they crave the employee’s agreement and validation. But there is no point.
An employee who will never agree face to face with the criticisms will often still absorb the message that their employment is in danger and make efforts to improve their performance. If that is the goal, and it is the only valid one, it will happen or not. There is no point in trying to crush them first.
If an employer wanted to warn a supplier that because of delivery delays the relationship was in danger, they would simply send a letter saying that. They don’t demand that the supplier agree in writing to their failures and confess their sins. Why should it be any different with an employee? The only answer is that there are personal relationships involved and egos in the mix. Get them out.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, dated January 25, 2010
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809