U no write proper? No job for you

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First aired on Q (30/08/12)

Grammar is one of our era's least likely and yet most hotly contested cultural topics. Many of the debates centre on the role of new technologies, how they shape our communication and whether they're responsible for eroding good grammar.

CEO Kyle Wiens recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about how he refuses to hire anyone whose grammar is not up to snuff -- even if the job doesn't involve writing. He spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q recently about why he takes that stance, and how he believes that you can learn a lot about a person from his or her grammar.

Wiens asks all job applicants to take a grammar test. If they fail, the interview is over. "We've found that people that pay attention to the difference between 'to,' 'too,' and 'two' have much better success at other jobs," said Wiens. "If you're careful with your writing, you'll also be careful with the work you do."

But why is good grammar such an important criterion in hiring for Wiens? "We do very technical work," he explained. "The sorts of people who are interested in really paying attention to detail really carries through to all parts of their life. And people that have poor grammar tend to be people who have made the choice not to pay attention to that." Wiens stressed that he doesn't think it's an issue of intelligence or education, but he does believe that caring about the details of grammar is a choice that individuals make.

"In general, our society communicates more through the written word than any society past," said Wiens. "We're just doing it through instant messages and SMS...we make the conscious choice when we use those mediums not to follow the formal English grammar structure and a lot of people take that decision and use it to justify not paying attention to the rules at all, ever."

But what about candidates whose first language isn't English? Or who suffer from dyslexia? "We absolutely make exceptions for that," said Wiens. "We sort of feel people out. We have people who are phenomenal writers who are dyslexic who might have trouble with a more formalized test...we're willing to bend the rules when it makes sense."

And what about candidates who are generally intelligent and well-versed in the ways of words, but who falter under such pressure from Wiens? He admits that "they only have to score about a C," which the truly grammatically stringent would view as far too generous. "We're not incredibly picky with it, we just use it as a baseline," he explained. "What we've found is that people who can't even pass a baseline are going to have a very difficult time doing their job later."

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