Do I have to sign my termination or separation agreement?

“The company called me in after being on a three-day suspension. I thought I was being called back to work, instead my manager fired me. I was in shock.

My manager puts the termination paperwork in front of me and tells me I have to sign it to get my final paycheck.  He did not give me a copy of it and I think I might have signed something that says I did something wrong when I believe I have not done anything wrong. What do I do?”

This situation arises when terminations come as a surprise to you. It does not matter if you are being terminated for cause or employment at will, you may feel like you are under stress or duress.  All you want to do is to get as far away from this situation as possible and you are ready to sign anything just to get out of the room.

Then the reality of “oh what did I just do” sets in. So what are your options when you are in the middle of being terminated and the company is demanding you to sign off on some paperwork?

Take a deep breath and read the document.

  • Is the document simply affirming that the company is firing you, letting you go, laying you off or asking you to say you quit?
  • Does the letter demand that you give up some personal rights?
  • How detailed is the letter – does it simply say you are being terminated on a specific day or does it state the reason for termination?
  • Does the letter outline any special circumstances?

Be clear about what you are signing

If the termination letter is asking for a confession or admission of guilt or is stating you that you give up some employee rights, you can opt not to sign it.

For example, if the company wants you to say you quit and you are being laid off, are you still eligible for unemployment? Be sure to check your State Unemployment regulations.

Another major concern is giving up your employee rights to any benefits, monies due (bonus, stock, equity), EEOC and unlawful termination claims or any rights to sue in exchange for a financial settlement.

These types of termination arrangements are often referred to as separation agreements and should reviewed by an attorney or at the very least considered carefully before signing your consent.

Consider an alternative

If you refuse to sign your termination paperwork, your ex-employer will not be happy. Do you care? Maybe not, though it is always best to leave on good terms and there may be a win-win solution.

When you sign the termination papers, you can include the following phrase under your signature:

Signature acknowledges receipt only

By including this caveat, you leave little doubt about why you are signing the document. There is no admission of guilt or agreement on why the company is terminating your services.

Ask the company to make a copy of your termination paperwork for your records. The company is not obligated to do this (unless you are being asked to do a separation agreement), so if they say “no” do not be surprised.  Remember though, if you do not ask, you will never receive what you want.

Get other facts

In most states, you are not required to sign a termination document – check your state’s regulations for additional information. There are companies who terminate people in many ways – by phone, fax or e-mail – all without signatures required.

Companies cannot withhold your final paycheck for not signing a termination notice. If they do, contact your local Department of Labor. Some states require employers to have the final paycheck at the time of termination.

Employees who are in a union or are under an employment agreement will have a defined process in their contract and should refer to it for the correct procedure.

About Lynn Dessert (425 Posts)

Lynn Dessert is an ICF trained certified NLP Coach specializing in Executive, Career and Life coaching based in Rochester, N.Y. She works with individuals and organizations to maximize personal effectiveness skills—a cornerstone to career advancement. Lynn is the author of What To Do After Being Fired and The Secerts to Successful Job On-Boarding. Start your discovery process by contacting her at 585.249.5149 today.


  1. Jennifer Koren says

    This was really informative Lynn. I have seen many employees go through this process and just sign away without really reading any documentation or understand what they are signing. The end result was usually that they were not able to file for unemployment because of the nature of the termination. The employee was never able to fight it since the company had signed documentation to back them up.

    This also brings up a good question – ‘Do they have to sign the termination letter?’ I never really thought of that as an option but I guess it really is.

    I like the ‘Signature acknowledges receipt only’. This was another thing I didn’t realize. I will definitely share these tools with staff when I am approached with questions.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Joan says

    Thanks Lynn,
    This post sounds all to familiar.  I experienced a similar situation, not knowing what to do, at time of downsizing.  This post will save a lot of people some stress and frustration.

  3. Mark A. Griffin says

    Most states allow employees to revoke their separation agreement by signature within 7-21 days (If remuneration is offered). Most juries will agree that employees are signing under mental duress. Many separating employees when being fired will write under their signature “Do not agree” etc.. This seems to be standard now. I agree that you should always be congenial and cordial no matter how the company is treating you, by doing so you will maintain your dignity, and hope fully gain their respect. When an employee either acts out verbally or becomes disruptive, most managers will feel like they made the right decision letting them go! It does the departing party no good.

    Thanks Lynn for a great article, on a tough subject. You are always able to present a touchy subject in a positive way.

  4. Brian says

    So here is my question. I recentley got terminated from a job, I since have a new one. BUt when I was released, my boss (ex boss) had me fill out and sign my own seperation form, as he stood over watched and prompted me what to write. Admittedly, I was so angry and not thinking straight and just wanted to get my check and leave before I mopped the floor with him, as anyone would. I know he probably took advantage of the situaion to avoid paying unemploymet, but my question is, can he do that? Prompt me on what to say? and if not, was be breaking the law? I live in Oregon if it helps

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Brian, Congratulations on the new job. The approach your old boss took may or not have been illegal depending on the situation. If anyone finds themselves in these kinds of situations, my advice is to let your employer that the news of your termination is a shock and that you need to talk to someone else before writing or signing any documents. Employers have a right to fire you, they don’t have a right to “make” you write a confession or your termination letter. When you are in these kinds of situations, thinking straight is not at the top of the list because you are stressed and confused.

  5. Bradly says

    I was terminated from a director level position for being careless with my expenses i.e. same ones had gone through twice…others I had verbal authorization from my VP to put through despite it was not company policy (paying for employee dinners, golf, to boost moral etc). [i know dumb on my part]
    Also, despite me requesting a company CC I was never issued one, so I had to put $100k’s on my personal CC over the past years-company events, client events, entertaining, and Sales Employee Prizes. Now employee prizes, I should have had them sign for the prizes, but I didn’t, nobody ever did. Although employees would vouch for me that I didn’t just buy all this stuff for me. However the company decided to pile that on top of my termination, saying that I had stolen over $85k. Obviously I didn’t. I just didn’t have a paper trail to prove it.

    They made me sign papers releasing me saying they would ‘not pursue me at this time’…whatever that means. But I paid $40k for a company event before I was fired, and now say that they won’t pay back now…is that legal? They said, consider us even. But I never kept all that stuff…I mean I drive a 6 year old smart car for crying out loud…they said if I pursued my reimbursements…then they would hold me liable for the $85k they said I mismanaged. (can they ‘pursue me later’?)

    I don’t know what to do…I’m $40k in debt now with no job. Please help…

    • Lynn Dessert says

      You are definitely in a major jam. If you have not sought advice from an employment attorney, I would see one pronto. They may be able to help you with recovering the monies from the event – hopefully you have a paper trail on that since it was recent. You need to have someone (attorney) talk to the company on your behalf, this is not a conversation you should have given the circumstances. If you signed the agreement recently, again, the attorney may be able to help you depending on the state you live in.

  6. Sam says

    I was on employment insurance for a month, then I accept this job. The owner pair me up with one very rude employee recruited from jamaica under contract work, who is really abusive verbally, he will yell and scream on me. No employee have last long in this small operated at home business. After working 3 weeks, the owner tell me to take 3 days off study the equipment on my own time at home. Back on Tuesday for 1 hour, then tell me to go home for 2 more days. Then call me to come back just to tell me that I will be separated from the company. Let me sign a paper, which he is reading but didn’t let me see. Because of my state of pressure situation I just want to get out and sign the paper, which I didn’t really know what is actually in there. He reads about disclosure for company secret and I told him I never disclose anything. He said he mean not disclosing it. He said he will give me a copy but he didn’t and I forget because he walk me out the door.
    On Monday I will go back ask for a copy
    My questions are;
    What if he don’t want to give me a copy, can I do anything?
    If there is something I disagree but I already sign it, can I do something?
    Can he forces employee to sign it without let them read, is this illegal?
    If I work for one hour and sent me home, don’t I get 4 hours pay?
    This mean employee that was yelling at me at work all the time, can I complain to the human right?

    • Lynn Dessert says


      I can not give you specific advice because there are many questions I would ask someone in your situation and sometimes the state you live in makes a difference on what you can and can not do. However, there are a few things I can comment on:

      1) when employers want you to sign something-especially when you are leaving you must read the document before signing it. Any employer who reads something to you and does not let you read it yourself or have a someone else (who does not work for the employer) read it to you on your behalf is not looking out for your best interests.

      2) Always get a copy at the time of signature. I realize you wanted to get out of there but not getting your copy will make things more difficult. The company may or may not give you a copy.

      3) What concerns me is what you signed since you really don’t know. If you gave away rights such as you signed a letter of resignation, you will have a more difficult time collecting unemployment. Make sure you file and contest if you get denied. I have several articles on here outlining the process for contesting unemployment or you can get my >What to Do After Being Fired eBook.

      4) The hours you worked and get paid are govern by your state.

      5) Anyone can make a complaint to their Human Rights organization. They will request facts, conversations or actions document, dates and witnesses who will speak on your behalf.

      Good luck!

  7. vinay says

    my employer called me and asked me to sign on a resignation later,i said,i wont sign,then they told me,they will terminate me,and send me the termination letter by post,i didint signed anything and walked out of office,
    my services are confirmed in the company,what should i do,if they send me termination letter by post.

  8. Deby says

    I have been told my job is being eliminated and that since my employer is a 501(c)3 they do not have to pay for unemployment insurance. I know they will be requiring a separation agreement. Most of these types of agreements I have helped draft (my boss is the in-house counsel) have indicated it is mutually agreed upon. I am no way in agreement of this termination without cause or based upon any wrongful act on my part. Two Questions:
    1. Can I state on the pre-written agreement what I am in agreement with if not all of what is stated?
    2. If I sign this agreement am eligible for unemployment benefits?

    • Lynn Dessert says


      You may want to check out this article from Guide Star: Alternatives to Unemployment Taxes for 501(c)(3)s. While any advice you find has a caveat that you need to double and triple check, your organization will have to pay unemployment insurance one way or another. To answer you questions, 1) You can negotiate what is included/excluded in an agreement as long as both parties mutually agree. It is highly unlikely that your employer will agree to something that is contrary to why the mutual agreement is being signed. 2) Your eligibility is determined by the state unemployment office and each state varies in how they look at separation agreements. If you are concerned, run it by them before signing it.

  9. Deby says

    I read this #11 before and have read it again. Thank you for the insight on signging the agreement but it does not address another question about the organization being a 501(c)3 and are their claim that unemployment benefits are not available to employees terminated due to their “church” status. Is that true?

  10. Jay says

    , I was with a major company for 23 years. I oversaw the functions of two Divisions. One evening I was involved in a car accident on company property of which was not my fault. The GM of the division I was driving on demanded I take a drug test. Company policy states drug tests are given only if there are injuries. My accident had no injuries. I was sent a copy of the email where this person told others for me to take the drug test. I was humiliated because of my position and that the word leaked out to all employees. I took the drug test to prove my innocence and I passed.
    I was now being told this individual wanted to replace me. I had support from my
    regional team and my other boss. They basically said to deal with her. Mind here that I have always received above average reviews and accommodations up to this point.
    I saw it was now going to be an uphill battle with this individual
    So I requested a Mutually Agreed Seperation. I was told by others above me not to do this but it’s easier said than done when your not in the position. I was given the Mutually Agreed Upon Seperation within days then let go. It paid for my benefits and wages for a decent amount of time. Since then my asst that makes half my wage was put into the position..
    My question is do I have any recourse here 18 months later? I even asked for a transfer during this time but none where available. It came down to take the package or get into an altercation, impossible work task, etc… then get fired. I also believe if this individual had not screwed up by sending me to take the test I would have never been offered a Mutually Agreed Upon Seperation. Any assistance is appreciated.

    • Lynn Dessert says


      The questions you ask are reasonable though require a more thorough examination of your situation and agreement to get good advice. It is something you should discuss with a professional – either an attorney or HR career expert. If you would like me to work through this with you personally, I work with clients on these kinds of situations. Feel free to review my services at

  11. Marcus says

    One and the half month ago, i joined a new company with a signed employment contract.
    Up to date, i have no received any salary but received a termination letter and an offer letter in other email.
    The termination letter mentioned they are pleased with my performance and happy to work with me, only mentioned the decision was made due to the change in company.
    The new offer letter reduce about 30% of my first employment contract pay with them.
    Pleas advise what i shall do next. Thanks.

    • Lynn Dessert says

      I would advise asking an employment attorney since you reside in the U.K. Employment contracts vary greatly by country and whether they can be modified. In the U.S., employment is at-will and employment conditions can be changed unless the employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreeemnt. Let us know how it turns out to help others in similiar situations.

  12. Chris says

    My husband just got let go a week ago. The very small firm that he was with let him go just 2 weeks before the 5-month mark before he was eligible for a sign-on bonus. His former boss was erratic, confrontational, and extremely unpleasant to work with. He would love my husband one day, saying he was doing a great job, then threaten to fire him the next because he didn’t pick up his phone when the boss called him. The boss never gave him a good reason for releasing him – something about needing someone who could travel more; on the separation agreement, there was a lot of legal mumble jumble – non-compete clause, indemnification clause, etc. – at the top of the agreement, it stated the split was amicable, and it offered one-week severence. The boss wanted it signed within 7 days. However, on the state unemployment paperwork the firm sent over, the reason for dismissal was noted as “job performance”; my husband hasn’t signed the agreement (technically he has 21 days since he’s over 40) because he’s afraid if he does, it would affect his ability to get unemployment. The boss called today to say he may have a project for my husband to work on but asked him to just sign the separation agreement, and he’ll “make sure” my husband receives unemployment. The whole thing just seems fishy to me. We cannot afford to hire a lawyer to review the agreement but will if you think it’s necessary. It seems like a standard agreement to me, but we have no other experience with this sort of thing. My questions are: 1) My husband qualifies for unemployment regardless of whether he was fired or laid off, right? He hasn’t done anything to violate company policy or broken the law; 2) Is there any language we should be looking out for in the agreement that would prevent him from receiving unemployment?; 3) Any ideas as to why the boss wants my husband to sign the agreement so desperately? Is he afraid of being sued? I can’t imagine for what (in other words, we can’t sue him for his bad attitude and terrible management skills). Thank you!!!

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Hello Chris,
      Your husband is in a sticky situation. To be honest, any one giving you advice without knowing more of the facts and seeing the documents is not being professional. However, there are a few things he can do. Contact your local unemployement office and ask them if what is being said as the reason for termination qualifies for unemployment benefits. This does not mean that his employer will grant it, they may contest it…and that is a different issue.

      As for navigating the discussion with the former boss/company, I would advise that he talk with an employment attorney or someone who specializes in these kinds of situations. I have the experience being a former HR VP about what should be done. My 90 Minute Power Coaching Session is an ideal solution because he can send background information and his separation agreement before we speak by phone. Those facts will define the appropriate steps to take and in what order. I realize that money is tight, but if you get a positive result, it was well worth the investment. Good luck!

  13. Kate says

    What if a Employee Resignation letter says, “further, I brought any complaints that I may have had regarding any supervisors or co-workers or their treatment of me to the companys attention, and any such complaints have been resolved.” Is that including all leagal action; like sexual harassment?

  14. Yvonne says

    I was terminated from my job this morning. This all came out of nowhere. My “lead” came to me with 3 write ups, along with my termination paper. I did not sign them, but do I have a right to those papers?

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Usually a company provides employees copies (you may have to ask) of discplinary actions at the time of discussion – the process would be outlined in a company handbook or policy. However, once an employee is terminated, companies do not feel compelled to give this information to ex-employees unless they are directed by a law judge or the court because of action being taken against the termination. The time to get that information was before you left the company and sometimes that is not possible.

  15. MGC says

    After years of employment, I was asked to sign a non-compete agreement. At one point I was threatened that if I didn’t sign I would be fired. I ended up signing the agreement. However, 12 days later they fired me.
    Is the agreement still valid in WA?

    • Lynn Dessert says

      MGC, I would get the advice of an employment attorney in your state since non-compete agreements vary by state. There are some states that require compensation if your non-compete prevents you from finding employment because of highly specialized skills. As for validity, the attorney will review with you the circumstances leading up to both events and advise you.

  16. Mary says

    Can my ex employer withold my final paycheck until I sign a termination agreement? It has been over a month since my layoff but I don’t agree with the terms in his agreement. He is threatening to claim that I caused the company harm if I sue. I wasn’t the most motivated employee but I certainly never caused the company harm!

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Mary – Your employer can not hold your final paycheck for hours worked because you have not signed off on a termination agreement. Employers can withhold severance if the severance is connected with the agreeement. Contact your local unemployment office for help or an attorney to help you.

  17. Nessa says

    They are terminating you so there’s no reason to sign a termination letter. My last employer tried to get me to sign a termination paper with the top half not filled in. I told her your firing me so there is no point nor benefit of me signing that. Look if someone is terminating you why the hell sign it…. to look good to them ?They don’t care about you nor would they want you back if they are terminating you. SCREW THAT! If you feel like you were harassed, wrongfully terminated, or terminated for no good reason I wouldn’t sign I’d protect myself and go to the unemployment line and in some cases a great labor lawyer. Ultimately the only one going to look out for you is you.

  18. Laura says

    Last week I was terminated from my job. My manager said it was for insufficiency. However, just last month, my big boss came into my office and told me what an asset I was to his company. I was completely blindsided, especially because of my boss’s praise. Also, I told the company the week before that I was pregnant.
    When they brought me in to tell me I was terminated, They told me I had to sign a paper, along with my manager and the company manager, but didn’t let me read it or have a copy. Then they told me to sign an agreement that I would not file for unemployment if they paid me $600 a week for 8 weeks. I refused, but now they are threatening me with “documentation” concerning my termination.
    Six months ago, they fired one of my co-workersfor being late – 2 weeks after she told them she was pregnant. She had received one reprimand for being late in the 5 years she’d worked there. I’ve been reprimanded once in the 3 years I’ve worked there. I’ve never been asked to sign any documentation acknowledging that reprimand. After speaking to the terminated co-worker, it seems that the “documentation” they refer to is the paper they made me sign at termination and then refused my copy.
    My question is this. Do I have a legal right to rescind my signature on the document? I most certainly signed under duress and was unaware of it’s contents. Evidently it has verbage about not filing for unemployment. It would seem that the separate document I refused to sign would be misleading in that I believed it was a separate issue from the paper signed.

    I appreciate any help you could offer.

    Thank you.

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Laura, The best scenerio is to find an attorney (or legal aid) pronto who can help you and go to your unemployment office and let them know what has happened. Your employer must provide you with a copy of the signed agreement and allow you time to rescind it if it states 1) you have quit vs. you being terminated and 2) you will not file any legal action and 3) you are receiving payments in exchange for your cooperation. If you were in fact terminated, I do not believe they can ask you to sign away your unemployment benefits – however states may vary.

      • Laura says

        Thank you so much for your response. I have sent a request for a copy of the paper I signed. My next question to you is this. Where would I find a sample of a letter (Texas) to rescind my signature? I don’t think there is any question that the document was signed under duress, and from everything I’ve researched, I have from 7 to 21 days, depending on the state, to send a certified letter stating that I wish to rescind my signature.

        Again, thanks for all your help.

        • Lynn Dessert says

          Hi Laura,

          I am not sure what forms you will need for your state. You have probaly googled it by now. Normally, you want to be very specific about what you are asking for and to send the copy by certified mail.

  19. Geo says

    During my six year tenure with my employer, I believe my problem began when they hired a new manager 3 year ago. I believe I was discriminated because I of my ethnic background “Asian American”. I was told by my manager that I had a “Grammar” problem. I was offended by her comments and took that as racial profiling me. I was also told by my manager that I did not meet there standards, but my employee review has high marks. I discovered that I did not get a raise or bonus when everyone else did. I was told by my manager 1 week prior to receiving my employee review that I will not be getting a “raise” or “bonus”. I believe my manager retaliated against me by decreasing my work load thus justify a way for termination.

    I filed a complaint against my former employer with EEOC and the doctrine is now in hand of the Office of Human Rights mediation process. I just went through a mediation today held at the Office of Human Rights. We have not come to an agreement.

    However, I did sign the separation agreement. I was forced into signing the document in order to receive the severance pay. Although the separation letter stated that I resigned from my position the company still offered me a severance pay perhaps to shut me up. I found the wording a little suspicious. I did not resign from my position but was wrongfully terminated. I requested to change the wording for accuracy but the human resource manager annoyingly said that if they change the document in anyway then they will take away the severance pay.

    The statement above is just a fraction of what I have experienced with this company. I began documenting every detail of mistreatment. I have printed hard copies of all the email, employee reviews, dated and time with names for proof of evidence. Apparently this company has had many employees sue them for discrimination, gender, age., ect.

    I am uncertain if my case has any validity what so ever, that why I’m reaching out for help.

    • Lynn Dessert says

      Geo, Cases such as yours are very complex. There is no one that can tell you if you have an case without going through everything much more thoroughly. However, that being said, if the EEOC has taken your case, they must believe there is something to it. They are understaffed and reject more cases than they take on.
      Regarding the separation agreement – there is no reason you have to sign on the spot. ALWAYS take this kind of letter to an attorney or another HR expert in this area for review.

      In fact, separation letters that require you to give up something in return for payment (separation pay) have a built in review period for you to do just that. I realize that employers dangle the pay as an incentive to sign, but that doesn’t go away if you are seeking professional advice in a timely manner. If the employer is not offering the review period, then something is WRONG.

      In your situation, you gave up being terminated by the company vs. saying you resigned. At face value, that sounds like a sweet deal and in most cases it is beneficial to the departing employee. Where it becomes more difficult is if the company is violating other state or federal laws.


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