Columns , Leadership

Break the impasse

Know what to do when employees refuse to sign a disciplinary notice.

Break the impasse
An employee who refuses to sign typically does so for one of two reasons, or both. First, she may disagree with the contents. Or she might believe the form is invalid without her signature.
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You created disciplinary policies and procedures that are clear, fair and approved by your attorney. You carefully document misconduct and poor performance, and you discuss the acts with all relevant parties.

But then an employee throws a curve ball by refusing to sign a disciplinary notice. You really want the signature as proof of the discipline meeting, so what do you do now?

Here are seven steps to get the signature and help prevent a refusal from happening again. The steps also will help you to protect your veterinary practice when an employee ultimately does not sign a disciplinary notice.

1. Stay Calm

It isn’t unusual for employees to refuse to sign notices related to disciplinary matters. There are reasonable actions you can take to manage the disciplinary process and protect your practice if the meeting later becomes part of a legal matter. The calmer you can remain, the better.

2. Carefully Describe the Signature’s Purpose

At the beginning of a disciplinary meeting, provide an overview of what’s about to transpire. Discuss the undesirable behaviors that led to the meeting and any discipline that will occur. You should let the employee know that she will have time to review the written document detailing the situation and that her signature at the bottom will show only that she has received and read the document, and that it will not serve as an indication of agreement with the document’s contents.

An employee who refuses to sign typically does so for one of two reasons, or both. First, she may disagree with the contents. Or she might believe the form is invalid without her signature. To move forward, decipher why the signature isn’t being signed. If the reason has to do with disagreement over the contents, see steps three and four. If it’s the second reason, see step five. In either case, armed with the knowledge found in those steps, cordially educate the employee about her options if she disagrees with the contents or with the validity of a no-signature document.

3. Add Comments and Clarifications

Many veterinary practices allow employees to add comments to the form, which can make them feel better about signing it. It is acceptable and often helpful to have wording above the signature line that states clearly that a signature does not mean the employee agrees with the contents of the document, only that she has read it.

If the ability to add comments or a clarifying statement above the signature line allows your employee to feel comfortable enough to sign the document, then you have solved the refusal-to-sign problem. If not, read on.

4. Suggest A Rebuttal

Perhaps an employee feels strongly enough about the information contained in the disciplinary notice that she wants to attach a written rebuttal. If so, this action helps your practice because it demonstrates that the employee was aware of the discipline and that the practice was following its policy of progressive discipline.

Plus, the rebuttal might raise points that practice management was unaware of. It’s important for managers to be open to explanations. Some rebuttals consist largely of emotional statements and no significant information. For example, “My co-worker is a jerk” or “My manager has always hated me, so why should this be any different?”

In other instances, though, the employee being disciplined might bring to light new information that may be relevant to the disciplinary actions being taken. Perhaps your employee will provide written documentation that alters the situation being addressed. What if she identifies witnesses who tell a different story?

If so, at a minimum, you can correct information on the form, adding and deleting details to make the form accurate. At that point, with correct information and an attached rebuttal, your employee might be willing to sign the notice. Sometimes the new information might cause you to rethink the disciplinary procedure you started. If doubts are raised about the employee’s misconduct or poor performance, don’t rush through the disciplinary process. Make sure you have all the facts before proceeding.

5. No Signature: What’s Next?

Some employees still might refuse to sign even after being offered the chance at a written rebuttal. You could recommend that the employee write “I disagree” before signing. On occasion, that works.

6. Still No Signature: Now What?

If two people from management or human resources attend the meeting, add a statement to the document that details what happened in the meeting and note that the employee elected not to sign. Then have both representatives sign below the statement. If there aren’t two people representing management at the meeting, invite one in so you can get dual signatures.

By this point you may feel frustrated, but don’t attempt to force the employee to sign the notice, and definitely don’t threaten to fire her to increase pressure.

7. Adjust Policies and Procedures Accordingly

If you’re reading this article in the middle of a disciplinary procedure, you might not be able to follow the above steps exactly as written, so you’ll need to adapt them to the current stage of the process. After the disciplinary process is over, though, you should review your policies and procedures to see what needs to be modified, based upon what you learned and experienced.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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