Why I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar

If you misuse a comma or mix up "your and you're", don't expect to get hired by iFixit's Kyle Wiens. He's not the only stickler — a growing number of employers are adopting a zero-tolerance approach to grammar. That means one mistake could cost you the job, even if you're otherwise qualified.

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 (such as dyslexia or English language learners), 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 emails 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, 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 labelling 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 is 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 people who walk in the door looking for a job are given a grammar test. Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they're detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.

I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why. [Harvard Business Review]

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.

If you're interested in improving your writing skills, check out Harvard's Guide to Better Business Writing.


Comments

    I have a zero-tolerance approach to "grammar mistakes" that make people look stupid.
    Kyle, please repeat after me, "Did you want fries with that".
    Your next employer will require you to learn that phrase.

      "Did you want fries with that?"

      * "Would you like fries with that?"

      What exactly do you think is going to happen to Kyle, currently a CEO of one company and founder of another, for his next job to be at a fast food joint?

      You've missed the question mark after 'fries'.

    Can you please post some examples of the questions in your grammar test?

    What about a zero tolerance for people who turn almost four paragraphs into a hyperlink?

      :D Was going to comment on this as well :D :D

      I guess that's what happens when your programmers and writers are judged on grammar rather than skill.

      Or just stupid people, as someone who works in a highly customer facing environment, id rather an employee who can talk and build rapport with a client over someone who can right well but fails at articulating themselves verbally.
      I've hired people who's resume looked amazing, and who interviewed well only to find they have no real people skills, or common sense once faced with a real issue.

        *I'd
        *write
        *whose

          +1

          But I guess his spelling and punctuation mistakes just support his argument...

    While I understand and sympathise with your sentiments regarding abysmally common mistakes like: to/too, its/it's, there/their/they're, I don't think a "zero-tolerance" approach should apply to the less common mistakes. For example, how often (other than in perhaps coding) would you actually use a semi-colon in a sentence correctly, and how often would you just simply not notice it if they used a comma (or even hyphens or parentheses) instead? Or what about common spelling alternatives, such as color/colour, emphasise/emphasize?

    Being a grammar Nazi is all well and good if there are universally accepted, defined rules that clearly delineate between good and poor grammar, with absolutely no grey area of adequate grammar.

    Please also note that I have refrained from pointing out the grammar errors in the article, since I know that my grammar isn't perfect. Then again, I'm not the one claiming to only hire people with perfect, unambiguously correct grammar (which is what I would define "zero-tolerance" as.

      I agree for the common ones, though also accept/except it bugs me when the wrong one is used.

      I am tolerant and often change between US english and AU english spelling.

      But I also have some anti-grammer that i prefer, I never use the word whom instead of who, I couldn't care less about using "whom" (that is one phrase that really bugs me when most people seem to get it wrong, it is couldn't not could, if you could care less it means you care a lot god damn it).

      To not hire someone purely because of bad grammer even if grammer has nothing to do with their job is bullshit.

        "that is one phrase that really bugs me when most people seem to get it wrong, it is couldn’t not could, if you could care less it means you care a lot god damn it"

        That bugs me too. It infuriates me even more when they reply back "oh the two are interchangeable now". No, they really aren't!

        Also, "haitch". I swear if I had a gun I'd shoot anyone that said that in front of me.

        Is it spot the mistakes, because if that's the case people could miss something without even realizing. But if they were actually to write that down themselves the mistake might not occur.

        If it's transcribing something from an audio file you have to be careful because people take cues from the way things are said. Some people can make it sound like the sentence should go one way as opposed to the other. When your more concerned with keeping up with what's being said as opposed to what your writing down that to can quickly become a too or vice-versa.

        --

        I can understand the desire to have your writers actually be capable of writing things down with the correct grammar and the like.

        But the claim of someone taking 20 years to learn how to use "It's" is kind of an overstatement. Since if no one is standing there to pull you up on it. Your not going to learn to fix it because your not going to know it's wrong.

        Maybe if I had made it through a uni course that was taught by 100% white people born and raised in Australia they might have picked it up. But when you have a russian lecturer who 90% of the time when the word loss comes up in a communication engineering subject she had written laws. Or the 100's of other stupid mistakes that came from her not being born and raised with the English language. These teachers aren't looking for these fiddly issues. They have 200 of the same thing they need to read and mark in like 2 weeks. So they are going through looking for the key phrases that actually signify that we got somewhere close to what they wanted before they give marks out.

    I agree with many of the opinions in this article, at least those relating to the importance and benefits of good grammar. However, rather than a 'zero tolerance approach' I try to help my employees understand why grammar is important and encourage them to improve their grammar so that their writing and presentation skills improve.
    Kyle' approach benefits nobody -
    certainly not himself, since he is not hiring the best people for his positions.

    Clearly you don't have a zero-tolerance approach to excessive hyperlinking.

    This would benefit me greatly within the construction industry, too. Overuse of ellipses, along with the absolute dealbreaker being the inability to spell one's own name.
    Different strokes, I suppose.

    Can someone spot any spelling or grammar mistakes in the article? Just curious. By the way with that sort of attitude I wouldn't want to work for you anyway. Would you sack yourself if you published an article with grammatical errors?

    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html

    i had to laugh at the hyperlink

      I wouldnt hire people that use poo either xD

    The guy may go about it in a pretty blunt way, but I reckon it's difficult to dispute:

    "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."

    I mean really, we read and write on a daily basis. The only reason to consistently get this stuff wrong is to not care.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    So, would you turn down a programmer for ending every statement with a semicolon?

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

        Google semicolon...

      I see what you did there...

    The problem here is grammar assumptions that are made are often wrong. For example, split infinitives are not an error and ending a preposition at the end of a sentence is usually proper.

      “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

    I agree with this. I think there are nitpicky grammar issues, but some are not so nitpicky, like not knowing the difference between they're and their, or to and too. F u rite in txtspk and don't bother to learn how English has been written for a few hundred years, with full grammar and spelling intact, then your professional and personal priorities might not make you a good fit for some employers. It goes both ways. I wouldn't bother to apply to a place that I knew didn't value good grammar and spelling, because dealing with the "self-esteem generation" kids who think it's OK to de-prioritize anything they can't do well or don't want to bother to do well, no matter what it is, isn't likely to lead to professional satisfaction for me.

    Bad grammar is something that can be fixed with some work (everyone can do it, they just need to put in some effort). If you don't take the time to correct your grammar, what would make me believe that you would be a dedicated worker? Grammar is a life skill.

    " we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople... and our programmers."
    Not sure why programmers need to pass a grammar test. It's not as though they're going to write the user manual or anything. Good luck with that. Given the shortage of great programmers out there I'm sure you'll have no trouble hiring top notch technical staff.

    From my experience (I do the recruitment for a large local company) - a lot of people out there cannot spell let alone put a proper sentence together. Today's generation also doesn't get taught proper grammar. A lot of Adults that come through have problems spelling their own name and the younger onces abbriviate every sentence & word and a lot surprisingly a lot do not know their date of birth.

      " a lot of people out there cannot spell let alone put a proper sentence together."

      You might want to check your last sentence...

    My biggest gripe: The incorrect use of "then" and "than."

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    He has a point. If after twenty years you still can't manage to avoid the most common grammatical mistakes with possessives and contractions, that does imply that either you have a very poor learning curve or you are unwilling to expend even the tiniest shred of mental energy to correct yourself. If you persist in making the same mistake after it has been pointed out to you multiple times in your writing, it's not that unreasonable to suspect that such an attitude could extend to other aspects of your job. Unfair, maybe, but not unreasonable. The odds of weeding out a mentally lazy applicant using this method are probably a lot higher than the odds of missing out on a genius with poor grammar.

    Though 'zero-tolerance' strikes me as a little harsh. Even fairly seasoned writers occasionally struggle to use commas and semi-colons correctly. It doesn't help that 'correct' usage varies according to the style guide.

    Un-editable typos is another story....

    What's worse, is spelling an word wrong on purpose because the real spelling looked "weird."

    As someone with dyslexia I make a lot of grammatical errors, but thankfully i live in the 21st century so have a good spell checker. You would have to be stupid not to employ someone just because they make little grammatical errors unless they are to be employed as an English teacher or something along those lines. I may have terrible grammar but I managed to top my whole university for the highest engineering marks, so if you wouldn't employ me you're the the one missing out!

    I feel you are rather misguided Kyle and I wouldn't want to work with you.

    You have decided what is important for you shall also be important for everyone else around you. You come across as a "My rules for me, my rules for you" manager which reeks of an inflexible work environment, hellbent on the pursuit of perfection.
    No thanks, and I hope that works out for you.

    As a programmer who has worked in all kinds of environments- I prefer good technical and collaborative ability, over the pursuit of expertise in another person's specialist field.
    Even though I'm senior in my field, I presume everyone- even junior people are my teacher. I am constantly learning- just not necessarily in things others value.
    I dont expect others to follow my value systems as their own.
    You on the other hand, do.

    I would argue that the purpose of writing is to communicate effectively using words and even with all my grammar mistakes in this block- I presume you understood what I was saying.

    So what is your policy actually achieving?

    No offence to you people. But I think its rather pathetic. I know that I suck at spelling. Quite often I get things wrong and when I manage to spot them I'll fix them when I can. But there are "some" words I don't know how to spell. I do know how to look things up if I need to, however that doesn't mean I'll pick everything up. Denying someone a job because of this is a pathetic excuse for not hiring someone. I am good at what I do. Just because I'm a bad speller or bad at grammar doesn't in any way make me a bad employee. In worst case I can ask someone to re check my work if need be. Don't leave me out in the cold because i'm two bad @ sp!

      Why should you represent a company if you cannot take care of your grammar though? Something as simple as that can say a lot to a prospective client? If I as a client, were to receive a letter of introduction starting with:

      "Hi sir, lemme introduce miself, I am Steve how are you today I hoep youre doing well. We would like to have your business!'

      Please, rest easy that I and many others would either laugh ourselves silly or run for the hills screaming. It's like wearing neat ironed clothing on a date as opposed to baggy jeans and a hoodie. Poor grammar represents poorly while well structured grammar will make you look, possibly, even better than you really are.

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