Confessions from the “Typo Police”

How important are writing skills to most jobs, really?  Sure, if you’re billing yourself as a marketing communications expert or a professional proofreader, you’d better have a keen eye for detail — and have gotten (received?) excellent grades in English class.  But if you’re a nurse?  Or a chef?  Or an engineer?  Or an accounts payable manager?  Is it imperative for folks in these professions to be extremely fluent in the written word?

I’d argue that it’s probably not.  Anybody who has enjoyed a number of years of success in these fields, after all, has most likely figured out how to communicate effectively with those around them to some extent.  You don’t see too many adults who are completely and utterly unable to get their point across.  And in the event a given individual may not be terribly comfortable expressing themselves in writing, there’s a good chance they’ve learned to err on the side of phone calls and verbal communication methods — or are resourceful enough to ask a friend for help in cases where they need to handle high-visibility written assignments.

And yet, regardless of which profession a person is in, there’s no FASTER way to get kicked out of the hiring process than to have a poorly-written cover letter or a resume with several major typos on it.  Why should this be the case, if written skills aren’t actually a significant part of a person’s job role?  Won’t a company miss out on some fantastic candidates if they automatically kick out everybody who accidentally spells the word “manager” as “manger” on their resume, despite the other formidable talents a person might possess?  Frankly, I think the answer is yes, and I’m starting to suspect that this happens a lot more frequently than most people might think!

There are two reasons behind such behavior, I’d argue.  First, since every employer wants to hire people committed to doing quality work, one’s resume is often viewed as a tangible “litmus test” of whether a person takes their career seriously and knows how to produce a quality finished product.  The second reason, however, is a little more nefarious — and one I haven’t seen talked about all that much.  Call me crazy, but I’d propose that the common practice of booting out great candidates based on minor resume typos is often a thinly-disguised power trip on behalf of front-line resume screeners and hiring managers.  It’s “revenge of the liberal arts majors” so to speak.  While I suppose I could be speaking only for myself, I readily admit I have an annoying superiority complex when it comes to writing — because it’s something I’ve always been pretty good at — and as a result, I’m sure I’ve penalized quite a few people to an unfair degree on this issue over the years and have allowed it to cloud my judgment in terms of their bona fide job capabilities.

Going forward, I’m going to try and lighten up on this issue a bit, since I’m realizing more and more that writing is only one of a great many diverse and wondrous talents that one can bring to bear to get exceptional workplace results.  And in fairness, if an employer were to test my math skills, the shoe would quickly be found on the other foot!  I’m pretty sure there are plenty of frustrated English majors and academic achievers out there, however, who have found themselves in lower-level admin positions and similar roles — and are taking every opportunity to “punish” those job candidates who don’t properly conjugate their verbs or who might misspell the word “there” as “their” every once in a while.   My question to these folks: does it really matter all that much?  Did you truly not understand what the person was trying to say?

In closing, I’m certainly not advocating that job seekers lessen their vigilance around this issue or allow careless mistakes to slip into their documents, but I just wanted to throw the idea out there/their as food for thought, since it was on my mind the other day.  As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed!

P.S. Want a totally different perspective on the importance of writing in the workplace?  Check out the fascinating blog post here from author Penelope Trunk of Brazen Careerist.  She argues that people’s writing skills have never been better — it’s just that many of us “older folks” are viewing the concept of writing in old-fashioned, obsolete terms!

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