Cover Your Ass


mistakes were made

Cover your ass (CYA) describes activity, usually in a work-related or bureaucratic context, done by an individual to protect himself or herself from possible subsequent legal penalties or criticism. According to lexicographer William Safire, it describes the bureaucratic technique of ‘deflecting responsibility in advance,’ that is, diffusing responsibility for one’s actions as a form of insurance against possible negative repercussions. It can denote a type of institutional risk-averse mentality which works against accountability and responsibility, often characterized by excessive paperwork and documentation (red tape), which can be harmful to the institution’s overall effectiveness.

The activity, sometimes seen as instinctive, is generally unnecessary towards accomplishing the goals of the organization, but helpful to protect a particular individual’s career within it, and it can be seen as a type of institutional corruption working against individual initiative. In a slightly different sense, it can be used to describe rightful steps to protect oneself properly while in a difficult situation, such as what steps to take to protect oneself after being fired (due diligence).

The phrase is generally viewed as a vulgar term and is often expressed as an initialism. Safire identified CYA as an anachronism in the sense that word ‘ass’ had come to mean the whole person, an example of a synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole). The word ‘ass’ is often replaced with politer versions or euphemisms, such as ‘cover your rear end’ or ‘cover your butt,’ according to Safire. The term ‘cover your butt’ was once used by Minnesota health authorities in promotional material urging citizens to undergo preventive colorectal exams, as a way to ‘cover’ themselves medically from possible future cancer.

In banking, compliance officers issue unnecessary memos, obfuscate documents, and conduct transactions discreetly, as ways to absolve themselves from possible future liability. The term has been applied in the medical profession to describe doctors who prescribe unnecessary medical tests for patients to avoid lawsuits. Before the failed launch of the space shuttle Challenger, the final launch approval by rocket maker Morton Thiokol contained the phrase ‘information on this page was prepared to support an oral presentation and cannot be considered complete without the oral discussion.’ This disclaimer was later described as a ‘CYA notice.’

Safire explained how the term is used in bureaucracy: ‘A bureaucrat adept at CYA (a) likes to employ massive constructions (see MISTAKES WERE MADE) (b) follows up a meeting or phone call with a self-serving memcon — ‘memorandum of conversation’ (c) routes memos to and through as many other bureaucrats as possible, thereby spreading the risk of future criticism, and (d) ‘papers the file’ with memoranda sometimes supporting and sometimes contradicting his or her position.’ Because these practices are so routine, a genuine warning can be mistaken for CYA behavior (a type II error or false-negative), with disastrous results. In the summer preceding the attacks of 9/11, President Bush was briefed on a now famous August 6, 2001 memo titled ‘Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.’ Bush’s response to the briefer was reportedly: ‘All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.’

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