Is bad grammar the great career killer?

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 12:25 p.m. MST

Should grammar be a litmus test for employment? (Shutterstock) Should grammar be a litmus test for employment? (Shutterstock)

Earlier this week, we all celebrated National Grammar Day. Did you miss it?

I’m already a little nervous about this. I’m sure every English teacher who reads this on DeseretNews.com will be on my case about each and every grammatical error I make. And, I usually make a few — some even intentionally.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how some of us have become lazy in how we communicate electronically and how that makes us difficult to understand. After speaking with a colleague Monday afternoon, he introduced me to something Brad Hoover, CEO of Grammarly, wrote for the Harvard Business Review.

“(G)ood grammar is instrumental in conveying ideas with clarity, professionalism, and precision,” he writes. “Even so, the informality of e-mail, texting, and tweeting has crept deep into company communications. It is not uncommon to hear a co-worker make a grammatical faux pas such as ‘There’s new people you should meet.’ Even former Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang was known for ignoring capital letters in his e-mails.

“Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, wrote in a blog post for HBR that he refuses to hire people who use poor grammar. He asserted that good grammar is a sign of professional credibility, attention to detail, and learning ability. In the process, he started a nearly 4,000-comment debate (on this website [hbr.org] alone) about the audaciousness of his stance. Some people criticized Mr. Wiens for his hiring approach, accusing him of being harsh or even elitist. Ultimately, this was a debate that had no data and reached no conclusion,” writes Hoover.

I once heard that Henry Ford would take potential executives to lunch before hiring them and refused to hire anyone who added salt or pepper to their food before tasting it. He assumed they would likely make decisions in the same way they seasoned their food — they’d forget to look before they leaped. He wanted people who would make thoughtful decisions and felt a casual lunch was a good litmus test.

I’m sure there are many who would suggest that Ford was unfair too.

Nevertheless, we judge people by their attractiveness, their grooming, their dress, and any number of other subjective measures every day (my wife won’t take me seriously when I wear my red PF Flyers, and she has a pair of earrings I don’t like very much). We make these kinds of judgments every day. Why shouldn’t grammar be added to the list? According to Hoover, if you have poor grammar you are already being judged.

Consider the results of a review of 100 LinkedIn profiles of native English-speakers in the consumer packaged goods industry. “Each professional had worked for no more than three employers over the first 10 years of his or her career,” writes Hoover. “Half were promoted to director level or above within those 10 years, and the other half were not.” The analysis showed:

    • Professionals with fewer grammar errors in their profile achieved higher positions.
    • Fewer grammar errors correlate with more promotions.
    • Fewer grammar errors associate with frequent job changes.
Although this is a very small sample size, it would appear that good grammar could be a predictor of professional success. I’m sure my junior high school English teacher, Mr. Boehme, would agree. Although I didn’t appreciate the value of diagramming sentences at the time, hopefully some of those lessons have stayed with me (at least the lessons that weren’t distracted by a very cute girl named Michelle).

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed the same trend over the course of my own career. I’ve witnessed the careers of several colleagues get sidetracked when their inability to write was discovered. Fair or not, it seems to be a fact of life for many professionals.

Hoover suggests, and I have to agree, “good grammar is a predictor of professional success” and “grammar skills may indicate several valuable traits.” Here’s why:

Attention to detail: People who care about their writing demonstrate credibility, professionalism and accuracy in their work.

Critical thinking: Knowing how to structure a grammatically correct sentence is a sign that you can analyze and explain complex problems.

Intellectual aptitude: If you are a native English speaker and never learned the difference between “it’s” and “its,” an employer might wonder: What else have you failed to learn that might be useful?

I spend a lot of time writing in MS Word every day and often discover spelling or grammatical errors upon proofreading that Word missed. I think we’ve become complacent because we haven’t had to memorize vocabulary words or structure sentences. For most situations, technology does it for us.

Furthermore, every day I hear people mispronounce words and misspeak because they have never actually spelled a particular word and may even be guessing at its meaning. Embarrassing? It should be, but most of our colleagues aren’t so boorish as to correct us publicly — at least I’ve been off the hook since Mr. Boehme’s class. The offenders likely never know they are projecting a negative image of themselves and consequentially stunting their professional growth.

My English major son will sometimes read one of these pieces and ask me who my editor is. It’s his way of suggesting that I probably should have proofed my article a time or two more.

How much attention do you give to grammar? Do you think it’s important?

As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (lendio.com).

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