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Signatures & Business Etiquette

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Business etiquette for signing documents and letters evolves with every technological advancement, yet some matters still call for traditional methods for indicating that you either wrote or that you accept the document and its contents. Best practices and proper etiquette for signatures include not only knowing when to sign, but also how to sign a document.

Signature as Evidence

Putting your John Hancock on a document can be for the memo you actually penned to your agreement with a document and all it contains, including any contractual agreements. In addition to adding your signature to a document, placing your initials in areas where you or another party makes changes means that you accept the changes, even if they are handwritten as an amendment to the formal agreement.

Signing For Someone Else

In cases in which the author of a document cannot sign it, proper business etiquette suggests that it's permissible for the person who prepared the document or another authorized party to sign on the author's behalf. For example, an administrative assistant who transcribes a letter her boss wants to distribute right away might sign her boss's name if her boss isn't in the office to put her actual signature on the letter. In this case, if the assistant's name is Mary Smith and the boss's name is Jane Doe, the proper way for Mary to sign the document is: "Jane Doe/signed by ms" or simple, "Jane Doe/by ms," which means Mary is signing in Jane's absence.

When Wet Signatures Are Required

Technology affords us the opportunity to sign documents without actually putting pen to paper. When you sign a document in ink, it's referred to as a "wet" signature. Many official documents, such as federal contracts, personal attestations or documents that a notary signs, require a wet signature. In cases in which a notary places her signature and seal, that indicates the person who is signing the document is who she claims to be -- a notary's signature doesn't attest to the veracity of the document's contents or whether the signer is properly signing the document.

Electronic Signatures

Electronic and digital signatures save time and money. With these options, you needn't pass hard copies back and forth, transmitting documents via email and not the U.S. Postal Service or a 1990s-type facsimile machine. Several vendors provide methods for attaching your electronic or digital signature to a document; however, it's best to ask whether this type of signature is acceptable before you go to the trouble of producing one, only to discover that you actually need to sign the document with an ink pen.

It's Personal

Always sign the letter in ink if you're writing a congratulatory letter to a colleague or penning a commendation to one of your employees. A digital signature just isn't the same when your purpose is to convey appreciation for someone doing a good job or expressing your personal thoughts. Many people place a higher value on a hand-signed letter because it shows the writer went the extra step to extend her personal wishes.


Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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