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I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.

by Kyle Wiens

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.

Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss’s more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar “stickler.” And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a “zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.

Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have “zero tolerance.” She thinks that people who mix up their itses “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,” while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.

Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin.

Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we’ve made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.

But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

Good grammar makes good business sense — and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.

On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?

Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.

Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.

In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose. Great programmers are more than just code monkeys; according to Stanford programming legend Donald Knuth they are “essayists who work with traditional aesthetic and literary forms.” The point: programming should be easily understood by real human beings — not just computers.

And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil’s in the details. In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything.

I hire people who care about those details. Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren’t important. And I guarantee that even if other companies aren’t issuing grammar tests, they pay attention to sloppy mistakes on résumés. After all, sloppy is as sloppy does.

That’s why I grammar test people who walk in the door looking for a job. Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.

[[Editors' note: If you're interested in improving your writing skills, please consider our Guide to Better Business Writing book]]

Join us for a Twitter chat about this blog post on Thursday, July 26 at 1pm ET. Follow @HBRexchange and #HBRchat. Details here.

 

More blog posts by Kyle Wiens
                                                                   More on: Business writing, Communication, Personal effectiveness

 

Kyle Wiens

Kyle Wiens

Kyle Wiens is CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company dedicated to helping manufacturers publish amazing documentation.

THE BETTER LETTER

Stephen Batchelder

Writing Better Cover Letters

Over the course of this year I have dished out a considerable number of resume reviews and I hope that the feedback has proven constructive and beneficial. In comparison to how many questions I have fielded regarding resumes, I have been asked significantly fewer questions about cover letters.  This has puzzled me as a young peer career advisor.  If the resume is really the only thing that matters, then why are cover letters important?  For this blog I would like to turn my attention to the first article that most all employers will see, the Cover Letter.

Signing the Cover Letter

The truth is that the cover letter is often an overlooked marketing tool.  In a competitive job market a strong cover letter can significantly improve your status as an applicant.  The cover letter laid out in our Job/ Internship/ Gradate School Search Guide is very good for helping us Wabash Men get the gist of the basic cover letter format, but my aim is to help point out some finer details that will help you write a “Better Cover Letter.”

The first piece of advice; you need to research the company you are applying to.  It is not enough to have a generic cover letter that you simply change the address on.  An employer will often see hundreds of cover letters that are not tailored specifically to the company that you are applying to.  Especially if you have a connection to someone within the company or you demonstrate a good knowledge and interest in the company, you can prove that you are interested in the position and your resume more often than not will receive more careful consideration.  However, it is important not to simply demonstrate your acquaintance with an employee with the company, but state something like “I learned about this position through a recent conversation with John Doe.”  Depending on the size of the company you are applying to it may be necessary to state your contact’s connection/ position with the company.

Secondly, in your body paragraph you are making an argument for why you should be hired. So it is important to include concrete evidence.  It is much more interesting to read about your involvement in a local juggling club and how that has given you the ability to respond quickly to adversity, they to simply say “I have am able to learn quickly and have the ability to overcome adversity.”   It is also important to remember that your selling points should be tailored to the position the cover letter is addressing.  If the position advertises that they are looking for candidates with “strong interpersonal communication skills,” you will want to show how you have demonstrated strong interpersonal communication skills.  This could be a skill developed from a leadership position in you fraternity or on an immersion trip to work with disadvantaged families in Peru.  Where ever you have you have demonstrated these qualities, you should discuss those in depth rather than just writing, “I have strong interpersonal communication skills.” Be Concrete.

My final piece of advice is to remember that the focus of the cover letter is to convince the reader to look at your resume. With this in mind your cover letter says a lot about your resume.  If your cover letter is generic and you are unable to highlight specifics of your resume that make you an ideal candidate for the position, then why would an employer feel inclined to look at your resume?  On the other hand if you write an outstanding cover letter, but neglect to include that information on your resume, that is equally as problematic.   It will seem contradictory to an employer to see an experience described in your cover letter absent from your resume.  This tells the employer that perhaps you felt the experience not significant enough to include on your resume and therefore the wonderful argument you made in your cover letter is disregarded.  To use your resume and cover letter to your best possible advantage the experience or experiences discussed in your cover letter should reflect what will be seen on your resume.  Yet, it is important to remember that the resume and cover letter are not meant to be repetitive.  Rather, the cover letter provides a coherent, argumentative account linking and developing the experiences presented on the resume.

In closing I leave five pieces of advice to remember when writing cover letters.

  1. Take Your Time- Do not wait to write a cover until just days before the application is due.  Think carefully about how you can present yourself in the best possible way to an employer through your cover letter.
  2. Research the Company- Never send a generic cover letter.  Tailor your cover letter like your resume for each position you apply for. Always remember to write to your audience and address their concerns, expectations, and requirements.
  3. Be Specific- Explain a specific experience in depth.  Refrain from using phrases like, “I have a wide range of experiences” or “I have made numerous contributions to a variety of organizations.”  It is not the diversity of your experiences that will get you an interview, but the diversity of your skills.
  4. Convince the Reader- You are making an argument for yourself in your cover letter.  Why would the employer want to hire you?  Just like any paper state a thesis and support it.
  5. Proof Read. Proof Read. Proof Read.

Here are a few cover letter samples that demonstrate the points I have discussed.

http://www.docstoc.com/docs/41475301/SAMPLE-COVER-LETTER-VIA-EMAIL

http://www.docstoc.com/docs/41475209/SAMPLE-COVER-LETTER-FOR-AN-INTERNSHIP

 

Lessons from the Interview Front

-Austin Weaver

From beginning to the follow up, what I’ve learned through the interview process.

Over the past couple of years, I have been involved in several interviews—on both sides of the table, and even on the phone as well.  I have learned what to do and what not to do.  Mistakes have been made by myself, and I have witnessed others make mistakes as well.  Here is what I have learned so far:

Before you even land an internship, you must always show the employer that you are interested and reliable.  This is most obvious in two cases:  the time in which you apply, and how you respond to them contacting you regarding an interview.  Never wait until the application deadline to apply—I have made that mistake and learned the hard way.  Don’t apply the exact day the internship is posted, but definitely don’t wait until the final day of the posting.  Following that, if an employer contacts you regarding an interview, be prompt in your response to their email.  Addressing the employer with Mr. and Ms. can never hurt either.

For those who are interviewing with an employer over the phone, these can surprisingly be much more difficult than in person.  During an in-person interview, you often get a read on when the interviewer is satisfied with your answer and ready to move on.  This doesn’t happen on the phone.  Therefore, answer the question, and when your thought is over, stop talking and wait for the interviewer’s response.  Also, if you are one who doesn’t have a very exciting voice, make sure you don’t fall into the monotone voice during the interview.  Always sound interested—standing up and walking around while talking can help.

Once landing the personal interview, people have often made the mistake of not being appropriately dressed.  At this level of interviews, a suit with a white dress shirt and tie is usually always a safe call.

Before the interview begins, be sure to shake the hand of everyone who is interviewing you.  Be prepared for the interview as well.  A standard interview is going to be conducted by the employer stating “Tell me about a time when…,” usually regarding a time when you showcased your leadership, ability to deal with ambiguity, or other attributes relevant to the job you are applying to.  Also, every employer ends the interview by saying “Do you have any questions for us?”  Spend time researching the company and the position prior to the interview, and come up with 3 questions or so to show that you truly are interested in the position.

Finally, follow up every single interview with a “thank you” email sent to each person who interviewed you—I was offered a position and told that a key difference was that I was the only one who followed up with a “thank you” email.

If you have any questions or need to improve your interviewing skills, the Career Services office here at Wabash often runs Mock Interview sessions for students.

 

 

Dating your Career Search

–Mark Osnowitz ’12

When you think about it, dating and finding a job are rather similar. Let’s say your friend tells you about his female friend he thinks you would like. First thing you do is go on Facebook and check her out. At the same time, you may have a tab open on your computer for glassdoor.com. Your other buddy talks about a job he is interviewing for and that he thinks you should apply as well. When you are done creeping on the girl, you tab over to Glass Door and look up the company he is interviewing with.

In both cases you are doing a cursory search before you invest more time in the process, either having your friend introduce you to the girl or applying on the company’s website. So those same tactics that help you to find your dream date should help you get the job you want.

1) Do your homework. Since completely blind dates were all but ruined by Google, by the same token you should not apply to a job you know nothing about. The internet is your friend. Check out the company’s home page, websites like glassdoor.com and look at the company profile on LinkedIn.

2) Dress the part. Many Wabash men undergo somewhat of a metamorphosis from Wednesday to Thursday. Suddenly, the bearded faces and sweat pants are replaced with clean shaven men and jeans, perhaps even topped off with something called cologne. In the same manner, when you get the interview you need to dress professionally. Know the industry you are applying to! Even if the company dresses more casually day to day, they will most likely expect a suit and tie for the interview. If you need to borrow a suit or have questions, stop by Career Services.

3) Have something to talk about. There are many guides out there on how to ace interviews with employers, but the fastest way to derail your interview is to not have any questions for them at the end. Taking it back to dating, think how it would go if you only talked about yourself the entire time and showed no interest in learning about the other person. And just how you should ask about the stuff that isn’t posted on Facebook, you should ask employers questions you can’t get answers to on their website.

4) Follow up. Here is where my analogy starts to break a bit. There is no three day rule with employers. Some people still advocate for the hand written letter, but in today’s world they may already make the decision by the time they receive it. The day of the interview send a nice follow up email. Our guidebook actually has a section on follow up letters.

5) Play the field. I would never recommend leading multiple girls on at a time. You may end up like this Hardees commercial. Breaking the analogy again, you need to play the field with your job search process. Employers expect that you will be applying for multiple jobs. If for some reason they ask, you should be honest. Just like you should be when you’re dating! By the same token, when you accept a job, your search is over and you should let all of your other potential employers know. If you end things cordially you may even stay friends, I mean, have a valuable future contact.

So there it is. Five ways in which your dating and job search are similar and the way to do them right. If there is any interest, I may do a follow up entry on how dating and networking are similar, but that is for another day!

 

Inside the Mind of the Interviewee

By Spencer Peters ’14

Whew. Breathe in, out, in, out.  This leather feels weird on the fabric of my suit; it’s making me sweat. No. Could the sweat be showing through?

I’m wearing a nice grey suit with a white undershirt and a red tie.  I’m set. I look good.  An hour ago I slowly dressed myself in front of my bathroom mirror; choosing to tie my tie in a full double Windsor.  Was this right? Should I have gone with an Oriental knot, a half Windsor? A bow tie? Do I come across as whimsical, professional, carefree?

I’m racking my brain as I sit on the unfamiliar leather couch.  My suit pulls at the shoulders when I lean down to adjust my resume in my planner on the dark wooden table. I read the words over again and again. “John Abernathy” I say in a hushed voice as I read the bolded words in the center of the page.

I look across the room; the secretary sits with her black rimmed glasses peering down at her skilled hands that glide across the keyboard, incessantly typing.   She just types and types, oblivious to the fear coursing through my every vein.  I begin my mental tirade on her unforgiving posture and attitude when I’m summoned back to the room by the sound of her voice.

“Mr. Griffin will see you now.”

“Thank you so much,” automatically reverberates from my mouth.

She hits me with a flashing smile and I wonder if it’s a sarcastic, ‘dead man walking’ smile or one of genuine hope.  Before I can begin sorting them out in my head I grab my planner and for the first time notice how sweaty my hands are.  No. I only hope that they can dry on my twenty foot walk to the front of the desk of my possible future employer.

I find the oiled wood handle of the boss’s door, and turn very gently to stay steady.

The man rises and reaches out his hand.  I greet him with a strong dry handshake while I introduce myself.  Yes, 1 for 1 on the day with handshakes.

“So tell me about yourself John.”

Wow. I’ve been preparing for this question.  It’s the simplest one and most common too! I got this.

“Well I guess to start, my name is John Abernathy, I grew up in a very small town and graduated from an even smaller high school.  I’m currently enrolled at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, majoring in chemistry and psychology.  I devote a lot of time to my studies and my fraternity.  I also play on the football team at Wabash College.  And now I’m here seeking a job with you.”

By the smile on his face as I finish, I can tell I’ve done my job of scratching the surface of who I am.  I’ve done the job required of the question.  I sit a little straighter in my chair and shift as to readjust in its uncomfortable seat.  I grab my provided water and sip a couple of ounces until he begins in on his next question.

“So John, what makes you the best candidate for this job.  I can see from your resume that you’ve done a lot in your three years in college.”

My three years in college. I’m a current junior.  How do I wrap those up into a coherent answer?  I started drinking in college and have had my share of beers and drunken stories? But why am I thinking about that. Focus. I’ve had significant playing time as safety on the football team, but he doesn’t care about that; he’s looking at my leadership positions.  This is mine to blow, so don’t.

“Well Mr. Griffin. In my three years I’ve had multiple leadership positions, from vice president in my fraternity to president of College Mentors for Kids, and Captain of the football team; I’ve had to supervise and put people on the same page to work efficiently.  If I can corral first grade boys fresh out of school, college athletes pushed to the brink, or fraternity guys who can’t agree on anything, I believe that I can be part of a team that wants to work together toward a common goal.  I would love being given the chance to try.”

Shaky performance but I think I stuck the landing. Now an image of Nastia Lukin runs through my head of her landing from the balance beam.

More questions like this trickle by over the course of an hour.  I pause to form my responses, sip water to calm my nerves, and constantly keep a straight back and professional posture, even if my back is on fire.

The last question comes up.

“What is your biggest strength?”

I stroke my ego in my head a bit. I can outrun anyone in my school at the 40.  I date the cutest girls out of anyone in the fraternity.  Also, I’m a beast when it comes to Call of Duty.  But that’s not what he’s after.  What is my biggest strength that would spoon feed this guy.

“Well, throughout my life, I’ve always been a very good problem solver.  And I don’t mean that in a traditional sense necessarily.  If a problem gets put in front of me, regardless of its content and difficulty, I can solve it; usually by unconventional and innovative ways.  But there has never been a work related problem that I haven’t been able to solve if I have time.  For example, I once was given two days to make a pamphlet for a networking event, complete with contact information and background on the organization.  I did this and it was a hit within the office.”

“Well that’s all I have for you John.  We’ll contact you with our decision next week.  Thank you for your time.”

“Thank you for the opportunity Mr. Griffin.  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.”

I walk out of the office with my head held high. I feel as if I could have done more to strengthen his opinion of me.  However, now it’s my turn to flash the secretary a smile and let her decide what it means.  I hug my planner to my side, button my coat, and walk into the elevator and press the ground floor button.  Smiling.

 

RESUMES: A LABOR OF LOVE?

Resumes can go wrong in lots of ways. Generally, writers can misunderstand the purpose and context for the resume or they can lack the craft, the nitty-gritty details of formatting a resume and expressing themselves effectively. But there is a worse problem—at least it feels worse. Even some of the most diligent workers will procrastinate on this dread piece of writing. Once completed, job obtained, we happily eject the resume from our lives like an offending piece of trash. The hope is to never to think about it again. Call this the problem of motivation. The prospect of getting a job motivates us a little to put care into the resume. (Well, some jobs and some people.) But those who treat resume-writing as a labor of love are either inspired by an angel or a demon. Either way, they are mad.

This conception of resume-writing isn’t so much mistaken as it is incomplete. Resumes certainly have a temporary primary purpose—to get you an interview for a job. But there are at least three other values to motivate you to give the resume the attention it requires.

  1. Self-understanding—Yes, this sounds hokey. But writing the resume provides a great opportunity and a challenge to really understand and adequately express what your experience so far amounts to. If you mine your experience effectively for details and genuine accomplishments, you can see how valuable and employable you really are. It also helps isolate shortcomings, which can help steer your goals for further professional development.
  2. A tool for communication—The process of concisely expressing your experience helps hone your communication skills far beyond the written resume. You will need to be able to talk comfortably about yourself and what you do in many different contexts in work and life, and the place to develop the words to do this on the resume. Both the content and the skills for writing the content will transfer in unpredictable ways to other parts of your life, so do the job right on the resume so you don’t have to fret about the rest.
  3. A secondary purpose—Beyond getting you the interview, the resume-format is useful for a lot of other purposes. It’s a more versatile piece of writing than you might think. One great tactic is to write a forward-looking resume to express your goals for a new job. What do you want your resume to look like in a year or five years? Write that resume with all the attention and detail you can, then start checking off the boxes. You can also use the resume-format to assess your personal, rather than professional, profile—use it for personal, and not just professional, self-development.

These might just seem like parlor tricks for combating the ennui of facing the resume. But try them out, and you might just find yourself, not exactly enjoying, but at least valuing the work you put into it. With abundant motivation, you’re much more likely to get all the nitty-gritty parts right. And, by the way, that will help you get a job.

 

MISTAKEN MISTAKES IN THE INTERVIEW

A favorite interview question among hiring managers asks you to tell your serious mistakes and expose your weaknesses. “Tell me about a time you made a costly mistake?” or “What is your biggest weakness?” (Check out some variations: questions 14, 17 and 18 here). These questions provide a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to mature from your experience, take responsibility, lead, work with honesty and integrity, and communicate well about uncomfortable subjects. But not all mistakes are created equal. Here is how to deal with the difficult “mistake” question.

In general, you need to think up a mistake you  made, express it concisely, and talk about what you did to correct the mistake and the overall lesson you learned. The best response then mentions a similar example showing that you did not make the same mistake twice. But what mistake should you choose to talk about? This is the more difficult part.

The mistakes we make

Suppose you plan a key event for your club—a dinner with a major speaker. You plan for fifty guests and only fifteen show up, with the resulting great embarrassment and waste of money. Now how you frame this mistake can vary, and the honesty of your interpretation can vary too. If the event has been well-attended for ten previous years, and there was little reason to think this year would be any different, then it is an excused mistake. Don’t use excused mistakes as your example, because they are too weak. No hirer cares to hear how something bad happened in something in which you were involved, but that, really, you weren’t to blame. Unfortunately, one tendency of interviewees is to try to rationalize all their “mistakes” into this category.

Suppose instead you failed to discover a competing event posted two weeks earlier. Here you are more culpable for the mistake. If you knew about the competing event, but other obligations made you too preoccupied to deal with it effectively, then again you have a mistake to explain. These are the kinds of mistakes to talk about. Hiring managers do not want to hear you rationalize all your mistakes, evade responsibility, or point out your pernicious flaws. They want to hear how an otherwise competent worker took responsibility for a genuine mistake and matured in the process. Sometimes the mistake can even be enormous, so long as you dealt with it in an impressive way. Tell them about those times, and hirers get a great glimpse into your prospects as a capable and productive worker in their organization. On the other hand, if you present an enormous mistake poorly or expose an incorrigible character flaw–this is too strong. You want to be Goldilocks and present the mistake that is just right.

A good mistake

One manager told me the answer he would give to a “mistake” question. He has a position in public relations where the communications he and his office issue must be clear, accurate, and exceptionally well-written. Every piece of writing may be scrutinized carefully by its recipient, and any error reflects poorly on his organization. (Hint: he’s in politics.) Early in his career, he drafted a letter for public release and handed it off to his superior, who pointed out a typo and told him to be more careful. One week later, he did it again—another typo. He was reprimanded. Another week went by, and he turned in yet another flawed document. This time, his boss had a serious talk with him: a boss’s time is too valuable to spend on proofreading his work for typos. But more importantly, there was a lack of sensitivity to the importance of his work, to the gravity and seriousness with which any error reflects on his organization if it gets into public view.

The realization that his work had this importance led to a refined sensibility. It was something he should have already known—an unexcused failure to understand his job—yet he needed to make this mistake several times before learning the lesson. But the goodwill of his boss gave him the chance to learn, and he has been extremely successful since then. This is a mistake worth talking about, and one hirers would admire you for discussing.

–James Jeffries