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When a Worker's Grammar and Spelling Are Embarrassing

How managers can help employees improve poor grammar, spelling

A hand writing the word check your grammar on a blackboard.

​When Ken Schlechter introduces himself to his MBA students, he warns them "I am taking points off for grammar."

Schlechter teaches at New York University and the University of Dayton and is founder of New York-based Kenneth Michael Consulting Services LLC, which helps organizations with change management. As a professor and consultant, he said, he believes it's important to help students and workers improve their grammar—and get ahead.

He's not the only stickler about grammar. Ian Siegel, CEO of Zip Recruiter, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based online employment marketplace that uses artificial intelligence to match employers and workers, told CNBC in January that spelling and grammatical mistakes are among the top reasons a job applicant's resume lands in the trash.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, an online site for free repair manuals based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., gives job applicants a grammar test. "Doing worse than about 70 percent on it is pretty much the end of the interview," he said.

What's the Fuss?

So what's the big deal about grammar? What's so bad about a misplaced modifier or a few "Me and my friends will be there" slips?

"A poorly written document affects your credibility," Schlechter said. "It doesn't have to be perfect. If you are missing a comma here or there, people will barely notice." However, when the mistakes accumulate, it sends a message of laziness and incompetence.

Attention to grammar and usage is an essential aspect of business communications, said James Tenser, principal at VSN Strategies, a B2B marketing advisory firm in Tucson, Ariz. "Poor grammar obscures or even changes meaning sometimes, which can result in misunderstanding and bad outcomes. In conversation, reliance on slang or non-standard grammar can create an entirely wrong impression."

Sloppiness in grammar has increased as our mode of communication has shifted from formal business memos to less formal e-mails and texts, Schlechter said. Grammar matters, whatever communication mode is used and whether it is written or spoken, he and others said.

While Schlechter singles out younger adults as those driving the sloppiness, older workers have their own grammar issues, said Megan Krause, director of content at Investis Digital, a performance marketing company in Phoenix. "I find the older generation tends to get stuck on rules," she said. Rules change, she said. For instance, ''You can now end a sentence with a preposition, such as 'This is something I won't put up with.' '' That rule has been debated since the 17th century.

Grammar Fixes

Whether a worker is young, middle-aged or nearing retirement, his or her bad grammar habits can be fixed. Experts suggest the following game plan.

Check in with the worker. Bad grammar may be so ingrained that a worker may have no idea his or her grammar needs a makeover. Approach gently. Skip Weisman, a workplace communication expert in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., suggested saying "I wonder if you would be open to feedback for something that might be holding you back." That's asking for permission to give information that would be helpful.

Don't be condescending. Displaying empathy is important, said Ed Hasan, SHRM-CP, CEO and managing partner of Kaizen Human Capital, a firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles offering organizational development, culture and diversity services. He recalls one worker who was clearly striving to do a good job. However, he discovered that the worker had not gotten the best education. He took that into account and helped the worker learn better grammar.

Be a coach—for the long haul. Schlechter recalled finding three grammatical errors in the first few sentences of an e-mail sent by one of his project managers. He printed out two copies and set up a meeting with the worker. He gave him the e-mail and asked him to read it, first to himself and then out loud. Those lacking grammar skills tend to notice the errors when they read documents out loud, he has found. Schlechter suggested the man take more time to write. "Never hit send as soon as you finish writing something," Schlechter said. Always reread. If possible, ask someone else—even a boss—to read it, too.

An effective manager will offer ongoing reviews of correspondence or documents by workers with grammar issues, agreed Schlechter and Hasan. "I would never say no to reviewing an e-mail or document," Hasan said.

Krause uses humorous examples of common grammatical errors to help coach her writers. "One big one is misplaced modifiers, and that can be kind of funny." Her favorites: "I saw a dead skunk driving down the highway" and "The mom handed out brownies to children stored in Tupperware."

People with grammar anxiety can get nervous deciding between "whom" and "who," Krause said. She finds many tend to throw in ''whom'' when it should be ''who" because they think it makes them sound smarter. Her advice: If you can replace the word with ''he'' or "'she," use who. (Who did this?) If you can replace it with "him" or "her," use whom. (This gift is for whom?)

Suggest ongoing education and information. Point workers to useful information so they can keep improving. Hasan recommends books that are grammatically correct and have information to help a worker advance in business. One example is the old favorite, Who Moved My Cheese? (Simon & Schuster, 2009), available in book and audiobook formats. Krause likes Grammar Girl, an Apple podcast of short, friendly tips, and Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Avery, 2006).

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.


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