If you are a leader in any organization, you will be asked on a regular basis to sign a variety of documents, and it is essential to balance speed with a number of other considerations. We all have worked, or will work, for someone who agonizes over every aspect of a document. It is especially frustrating to make so many edits that the document ends up looking nothing like the original version.
In the spirit of keeping processes moving forward while also protecting the integrity of your signature, here are some factors worth contemplating:
Reputation. Placing your signature on documents such as policy letters and letters of recommendation is a reflection on you and what you stand for or against. Once a memorandum is published or sent, it is enduring, and it can be copied, forwarded or posted anywhere. This reality can be a little scary and can induce “analysis paralysis,” but there are ways and tools to mitigate that fear.
When it comes to policy letters, ideally, they should be written by you and represent your point of view. After all, they usually are just one page, and if you can’t articulate how you feel about matters such as sexual assault prevention or equal opportunity, some additional self-reflection may be in order.
If you have a hard time starting with a blank page, ask someone to provide prior examples to help jump-start your thought processes. It is never a bad idea to have experts such as the inspector general, staff judge advocate, equal opportunity advocate or sexual assault response coordinator review your drafts to ensure they are consistent with current policies and regulations.
Credibility. As you move up the chain, you should expect individuals to start asking for letters of recommendation. It can be hard to say no, but that might be the right answer if you don’t know the individual well, don’t know the circumstances of their situation or have a conflict of interest.
Let’s dig into each of those situations. Someone reaches out to you through a mutual contact or cold-calls you to ask for a letter recommending them for a highly sought-after course or training program. Remember, your signature on that letter is the equivalent of you vouching for them. If they turn out to not be good candidates, you lose credibility.
In this situation, if you decide to proceed, you will need to gather additional information. Personally interview the individual and have them provide relevant documentation such as transcripts, fitness tests, evaluation reports and references. If your “Spidey sense” is activated after doing all that legwork, the best course of action is to politely decline.
Familiarity. Suppose someone asks you to sign a letter vouching for their character because they are under investigation or facing disciplinary action. If this individual outranks you or is your supervisor—believe it or not, this actually happens—the only plausible response is to decline. They were wrong to ask you in the first place, and you should not feel any guilt.
What if you know this person, a friend, peer or subordinate, well? How much do you know about the circumstances of their alleged transgression? If all you know is what they are telling you, that is insufficient. If you do not know enough to feel comfortable putting your reputation on the line to vouch for them, you must not do it.
Propriety. This is the easy one. If you have a role in the selection process, or if it could be perceived that you are engaging in undue influence over a selection process, it would be improper to provide a letter. After ensuring none of these situations exist, when writing the letter, tailor it to the applicant and the opportunity they are pursuing. Take the time to write a powerful letter that will increase their chances of success, or don’t do it at all. The letter should be addressed to the selecting official(s) and never “to whom it may concern.”
Accuracy. It is never a good idea to “rush to failure.” Before you sign, proof the document for the obvious things, like the typos that spell check doesn’t catch. Those include “right spelling, wrong word,” and in cases where the document was written off an existing memo, check details such as dates, pronouns and names that did not get corrected or updated.
The document should be prepared in accordance with the regulation with respect to margins, fonts and authority lines. If you have a good staff, you won’t have to worry about these factors, but if your name is on the bottom line, it is worth knowing for yourself what right looks like.
Once you get past all these factors, it is essential to consider the content. Is the memorandum consistent with the regulations and instructions referenced? Do not assume the references provided are the most current or properly cited. Even though you once again can get an expert, such as your inspector general or staff judge advocate, to review the document, it is often worth looking up the references yourself. I was deeply disappointed to find after the fact that I had signed a policy letter that was in contradiction to a regulation. Trust, but verify.
One last thing: Consider the possibility that someone asks to sign on your behalf because you are temporarily unavailable. If it is absolutely necessary, which is often not the case, proceed with caution. You must ensure you have reviewed all the factors above, have the final version of the document in an unalterable format and are able to maintain a traceable record showing you have given your approval.
Author and humorist Evan Esar once said, “A signature always reveals a man’s character—and sometimes even his name.” Your signature can be a valuable commodity. It carries authority, and it can be a lasting reflection on your character and reputation, so think before you sign.
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Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager retired as commander of the 40th Infantry Division, Los Alamitos, California, and the California Army National Guard in July after 36 years of service. Previously, she served as commander of Joint Task Force North. She deployed to Iraq as deputy commander of the California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade in support of Operation New Dawn.