WORKPLACE LAW – Employee Disciplinary Notices

Question: At a recent meeting with an employee to discuss his performance problems, the employee refused to sign the disciplinary notice. Can I force the employee to sign it?

Answer: Providing verbal and written feedback to employees about their work performance is an important part of managing your staff. If you have an employee who is performing poorly or engaging in misconduct, these issues must be documented objectively and specifically so that the employee understands the specific conduct that needs improvement. Simply relying on an assumption that “everyone knows” is not fair to the employee and is risky for the employer. For example, instead of describing an employee as a “poor performer” or “having a bad attitude,” give specifics such as “arrived late to work three times in the last week,” “missed two deadlines in the last month,” “made multiple errors on a work assignment.” These descriptions clearly state what the employee needs to do to improve. Any supporting documentation should be included such as emails that informed the employee of the deadlines, or the work assignment with errors.

The written disciplinary notice should also state why the performance has to improve. If written policies were violated, refer to the specific policies that were violated. Include enough detail so that someone who is not familiar with the employee would be able to understand the behavior that needs improvement, and why improvement is necessary.

When you meet with the employee, it is best to have another person present as an observer. At the beginning of the meeting tell the employee that you will be discussing his or her performance issue(s), that the employee will be given an opportunity to present additional information or a rebuttal, and that the employee will be asked to sign the disciplinary notice acknowledging that he or she received it. Employees are more likely to sign a disciplinary notice if it contains a statement above the signature line that by signing it, the employee is acknowledging only that he or she received and reviewed the notice and may submit a written statement or rebuttal.

You cannot “force” the employee to sign the disciplinary notice, but you should make sure that he or she understands that signing the notice does not mean agreement with the contents. It is also important for you to understand why the employee refuses to sign. In addition to asking the employee why he or she does not agree and documenting that discussion, you should inform the employee of his or her ability to write a rebuttal, either on the notice in a space provided, or in a separate document, that will be carefully reviewed by you and placed in the employee’s personnel file. If the employee still refuses to sign the disciplinary notice, simply document the refusal on the notice itself, in a non-adversarial way, such as “employee chose not to sign after a request to do so.” Both you and the third party observer should also write on the notice that you met with the employee, discussed the notice, the date when you met, that the employee declined to sign the notice, and both of you should sign and date the notice.

Managing employee performance may be time-consuming, but the effort will pay off in the long run.