should you refuse to sign a performance improvement plan?

A reader writes:

A peer and I both are HR managers, and we were discussing whether, if we weren’t in HR, we would sign a PIP (performance improvement plan).

I said that if I was the average employee, I would not sign a PIP, because the verbiage (in most PIPs) basically states that you agree with the negative assessment of your performance. The signed PIP can (and will) be used against the employee at unemployment hearings, cause of terminations, EEOC lawsuits, etc. Although most states are at-will and can terminate at any time, I’m against signing a PIP that may cause more damage once the employee is separated from the company.

My peer feels that by the employee not signing the PIP, it may cause more of a difficult work environment, which may cause management to watch the employee more closely and create more of a reason to terminate the employee at the end of the PIP cycle, whereas otherwise the employee might have been able to save their job at the end of the PIP cycle. She also feels that the employee could use this opportunity to search for another job; while agreeing to the terms of the PIP.

What are your thoughts?

If I asked an employee to sign something to acknowledge that they’d received a document (a PIP or anything else) and they refused to sign, that would such a hostile and adversarial move that I can’t imagine the relationship being repaired at that point. How could it not be over at that point?

On the other hand, if I asked an employee to sign something stating that they agreed with a performance assessment, and they didn’t actually agree with that assessment and thus declined to sign, that would be entirely reasonable. No one should push someone to sign something that they don’t actually agree with.

So it’s the difference between signing to indicate agreement with the assessment versus signing to acknowledge receipt. Most PIPs that I’ve seen, if they require a signature at all, ask the employee to sign only to indicate that she’s read the document and understands its terms (which often include that she will be let go if the terms of the PIP aren’t met). If your organization is asking employees to sign that they agree with the assessment — as opposed to agreeing with the plan — that’s problematic, and I’d change that wording.

(And anyone who’s ever asked to sign to indicate they agree with a PIP’s assessment should feel free to add a note saying, “signing to indicate receipt only.”)

And really, the signature requirement itself is a bureaucratic detail; it’s not essential. You can proceed with the PIP without ever asking for a signature.

But yeah, an employee flat-out refusing to sign to acknowledge receipt is a big deal (even courts in California have ruled that it’s misconduct and a disqualifier for receiving unemployment benefits), and a sign that that relationship isn’t going to be salvaged.

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