Mr. Shangkong

Mr. Forward

There is always a "Mr. Forward" in the office. What about yours?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 8:07pm

Have you heard of “Mr. Forward”? “Mr. Forward” is a nickname for people who like to pass on emails, usually to underlings.

In Hong Kong, especially in the financial industry, a typical problem is low productivity. Many employees often feel they have more bosses, on various levels, than there are staff on the ground actually doing the work.

Big bosses in Hong Kong get email from their bigger bosses who take care of Asia, or oversee the global business, and some of them frequently quickly forward their bigger bosses’ requests to junior staff to follow up.

Gradually, those who fall into a pattern of passing the digital buck naturally get the nickname “Mr. Forward” -- because it’s what they apparently are good at doing.

Some employees say that when “Mr. Forward” goes into action, it is also important to note what he or she has added on the top of the missive.

For example, there is a subtle distinction in the expectations for how the email should be treated if it is topped “FYI” (for your information) or “FYR” (for your reference).

In today’s digital world, you have to be attuned to the difference.

FYR suggests you don’t need to immediately take action, but you need to file the forwarded email in a safe place in case something happens one day and the boss wants that matter followed up. To some extent, it’s like a timebomb. If nothing bad happens in the future, you and your boss will be fine. If not, your boss may challenge you on why you didn’t deal with it.

FYI connotes a stronger sense for immediate action, depending on, of course, the nature of the forwarded email.

Consider what happened to a friend of mine.

One day, his boss, known as “Mr. Forward” in his company, forwarded an email to my friend marked FYI on the top. The email was about a client’s complaint and my friend thought another department of the company would handle it because someone else in that department, mainly responsible for handling that client relationship, was also “cc”ed on the email. So, basically, my friend ignored the email.

Several days later, a chain reaction began. The client complained to a higher level of managers in my friend’s company. The “bigger bosses” were annoyed, so they blamed the next layer down of “big bosses”, and the “big bosses” then blamed my friend for failing to act quickly in helping the relevant department resolve the client’s problem.

So why, you may ask, didn’t the big boss just state clearly what he wanted my friend to do in the first place?

Good question. But the reality is many financial companies have their own unique way of  communicating. Some senior executives just don’t like to be too specific in emails to avoid a smoking gun.

After all, look how useful emails were to prosecutors unravelling the 2008 global financial crisis.


Photo: A teddy bear seen in a restaurant in downtown Shanghai  (George Chen/SCMP)

George Chen is the financial services editor at the South China Morning Post. The opinions expressed in the column Mr. Shangkong are all his own. Follow him on or