“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.