Do you have to sign termination papers?

Consoling your friend when she gets laid off gets awkward if you're the one who gave her the pink slip

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,
I am being terminated from my job this week and my boss would like me to sign papers. I don't want to sign anything.

Do I have to sign them?

Well, it's true that the only thing they can really do to you for not signing is fire you, which they are already doing. That said, what does signing the papers mean?

There are generally three types of papers involved in a termination. The first is simply a statement that you are being terminated and it may or may not say what the reason for that termination is. The signature asked for is an acknowledgement that you have received the information. It is not (generally) an acknowledgment that you agree with their assessment of the reason for termination.

There is absolutely no reason not to sign this type of paper. It merely says, "Yes, I received and read these papers." Not signing them won't change anything about your termination. (It's not like they'll say, "Oh dear, John won't sign these papers, I guess he'll have to keep working!") If you don't sign, it's most likely that your manager and another witness will write "John Doe received papers on 4/22/2012 and refused to sign." If your termination is because of a layoff of some sort and they would have considered you for rehire, then you've just had your status changed to "Ineligible for re-hire."

If it is something that says you agree with their assessment and you don't, you don't have to sign. (For instance, "I acknowledge that I came in late 7 times in the past 30 days and therefore I am being terminated.") If they pressure you, you can sign it with a note that says, "Signing as to receipt only."

The second type generally details what your obligations are. This can be something like a relocation agreement or tuition reimbursement. Again, your signature is just acknowledging that you are aware of these obligations. Not signing doesn't make them go away.

The third type of termination papers are a bit more serious. These are generally legal agreements that involve you promising to do X and the company promising to do Y. They can be asking you to agree not to sue (generally such a document is known as a "General Release"), not to compete for a certain time period, or to not recruit your former coworkers. In exchange the company offers you severance, waves repayment for education or relocation, or allows your 401(k) to be fully vested even if you haven't worked the requisite number of years.

This type of document is extremely important and you should run it by a lawyer before you sign (or don't sign), unless you feel confident that you understand it. No matter what the person who hands the document tells you, what is written prevails. So if there is a non-compete clause in the document, but the HR person says, "Oh don't worry, we never enforce that," they can enforce it if they want to.

In this case you have to evaluate if you want what the company is offering more than what they want you to give up. If it's a layoff and you feel like you weren't chosen for any illegal reason (such as race, gender, pregnancy status, etc), then signing a release saying, "I won't sue you!" is no big deal. Even if you think you were terminated for an illegal reason, if the severance they are offering is more than a token amount, it's probably more than you'll see in a lawsuit and you should consider signing.

No matter what, make sure you keep a copy of any document you sign.

Generally refusing to sign documents because you're angry just burns a bridge. How you handle yourself in a termination can have a huge impact on what your manager says when someone calls him for a reference. And destroying any goodwill that you have isn't worth your temporary temper tantrum.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to