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Stop! Don't sign that!

(MoneyWatch) "Just sign this and then you can go back to work." If you're ever pulled into HR or security, or even your manager's office and accused of something immoral or illegal, don't sign whatever is placed in front of you unless you agree with it.

I'm not talking about a performance improvement plan or an annual review. Those generally come on standard forms and a signature indicates nothing more than that you've received those. You need to sign those, and if you don't, all that's going to happen is that your manager or HR will write, "Presented to Jane Doe on 12 December 2013. Jane refused to sign." Then both of them will sign. It won't change your performance rating, nor will it mean you're not on the performance improvement plan.

But, what if you're accused of stealing something? Or sexually harassing someone? And then HR puts a piece of paper in front of you to sign? This is very different than being asked to sign a paper that says unless you stop coming in late, do your work on time and accurately, and be nice to your coworkers you'll be terminated. This is a piece of paper saying you broke the law. Sometimes, the accusation is something, that if the police are called in, could land you in jail.

So, what to do then? I'm not an attorney and this is not legal advice, but remember that whole innocent until proven guilty thing? That applies in a court of law, but not in the office. Your boss doesn't have to gather evidence, allow you to defend yourself and have an impartial judge and jury listen. Your boss can simply fire you. She can fire you for the illegal action, or just because she thinks you may have committed a crime. The only reason she can't fire you is if that firing would violate law -- she can't fire you because you're a certain race/gender/religion/sexual orientation (in some states) -- but she can fire you for stealing, thinking you stole, wearing mismatched shoes, or picking your nose. Or just because it's a Tuesday.

What does this mean? It means, they don't need you to sign whatever paper they've placed in front of you in order to fire you. Employment Attorney Donna Ballman explains it like this: 

If you are called into a meeting with Loss Prevention, that's a meeting where you need to be very aware that you are being accused of doing something wrong and you're probably being fired. They are not your friend. When in doubt, tell them you want to leave and speak to an attorney. Yes, they can fire you for leaving, but that's way better than admitting to something you didn't do, or admitting to a crime. You can always write up your response to the accusations calmly after you've had a chance to think straight later and send them to HR.
And that's the key point. Signing something that says you stole even a small item won't change whether or not you're going to get fired, but it can change whether or not there is enough to prosecute you. Ballman also reminds you that your employer cannot physically keep you in the office. They can threaten, but you're always free to leave. If they physically stop you, Ballman says, pull out your cell phone and call 911

Most managers and HR people are good people and aren't out to trick you, but remember that when you sign, for instance a statement that says you stole 3 pencils and a stapler, you're admitting to a crime. If you don't agree with everything in that statement, don't sign until you've talked to an attorney that's on your side.
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