What initials are for

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By Tony Samson

CEOS AND THEIR direct reports deal daily with proposals, studies, and evaluations requiring decisions, often urgent. The approving authority relies on subordinates to study proposals in detail. Staff assistants, technical consultants, compliance officers, and lawyers indicate their recommended course of action with an initial.

The staff provides a cover page summarizing the basis for the recommendation and the accompanying post-it note: for your approval.

Hence, staffers are courted by proponents, lobbyists, and power brokers, as they are seen to swing (if not push) a decision with a favorable recommendation complete with graphs, charts, and algorithms. Sometimes these summaries are conveniently provided by the bidder just to get all the critical points in. The analysis can tilt the decision a certain way with info surreptitiously provided by the staff — you must notch up your bid by another ten million if you want to win.

When approving authorities in the public sector get adverse findings in the public audit, they point to the staff — I just signed what they sent me. How was I to know that what I was signing would add funds to my personal bank account?

A legislator in the United States, when asked if he had understood, let alone read, the federal budget that he was passing into law, readily admitted that only God knew what was in those tomes.

Do local legislators go through the budget thoroughly enough to remember anything beyond the weight of the document and the quantity of porky stuff they can take home to eat? The legislator may check the initials on a document, casually tracking down that helpful stick-on red arrow against a bright yellow field on the page that says, “Sign here,” almost like a command.

Initials denote a recommendation which renders the signature of the final authority almost ceremonial. Those requiring favorable action on their requests expend much effort in winning the support of the various gatekeepers and recommenders that initial on the signature page, providing these low-level bureaucrats with appropriate gifts for any special occasion they can think of, such as celebrating the sun setting at 5:48 p.m.

Now and then, an approving authority may pore over a document with undue diligence because of the amount involved or the media comments it can invite. He may decide to ignore the initials positioned under his name and send back the document with a note — please defer and shelve in a dark place. (It needs further study on industry practice.) This reminder to the one initialing (and his gift-giving patron) that the signing authority is entitled to some attention and respect.

“Initial” is rooted in Latin, from a word that means: to enter or begin, or “initiate.” They are used for beginning a process or abbreviating it for a start.

Executives initial reports they have read, or at least seen, then, maybe adding marginal notes for the next person in the routing slip. (Note the ink stain on page 12) An initial moves a document from the “in” box to the “out” box.

Contracts that require a full signature at the end still need all other pages initialed to prevent their being reworded later or having a new page added showing different amounts and deadlines.

Initials can be the first letters of a full name. Tycoons and wannabes like to use their initials as a sign of having arrived — please don’t call me Edward, it’s EJK from now on.

Initials are beloved by groups that use acronyms (or initials of some procedure or subject) as a way of excluding the outsiders and defining the cognoscenti. Recognizing initials and what they stand for define a profession, and those who belong to it.

With the ubiquity now of e-mail (or chat groups) in office processes, is the initial still part of keeping everyone in the loop? The “cc” and the “bcc” has widened and put on record all those included in the consultation process. When there are more names in the digital approval loop, it is difficult to pin the blame on anyone if the thing blows up.

The formal approval process still needs an old-fashioned signature to formalize a decision or instruction and determine who is responsible for it. Initials are only there to recommend. It is up to the signatory to get things implemented, unless someone higher up initials dissent — please see me.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.