April 09, 2012
Can spelling be irrelevant even on a resume?
A follow up to last week's post (I am conflicted about typos). In that post, I mused about whether it really was that big a deal for people to confuse words like principal and principle, given how confusing English spelling is and how hard it seems to be for otherwise intelligent people to keep these sorts of things straight.
Reg Braithwaite actually went me one better last week and asks whether typos are important at all. Here's the money shot from the blog entry in which he discusses this, talking about candidates for a programmer job:
The problem with filtering people by spelling mistake is that we're making up a little theory about whether a spelling mistake tells us something important about the candidate's abilities. Which would be fine if we didn't have anything else to go by, but we do have something else to go by, we have their resumé and their code samples and we can call them on the phone and talk to them. So I gnore the little theories and go with what really matters.The man has a point: if the candidate can code like a demon, exactly how does it matter whether he or she can spell? Even on his/her resume.
I realize that people are ... offended ... by spelling errors, but the question here is when is and when isn't spelling ability an issue? I don't have to make much of a case in favor of having mad spelling skillz, since the default presumption is that everyone should have 'em. Braithwaite alludes to a theory that people develop in the face of spelling errors. One popular theory is that bad spellers are lazy. Another is the idea that attention to detail in spelling is indicative of equivalent attention in other areas. Braithwaite is essentially challenging this idea, and I've started to have my doubts as well. I mean, is there proof for these theories? Is spelling really just a version of how one dresses, a criterion that was long ago discarded in the world of high-tech as correlated with skill or "professionalism"?
So: spelling might be a superficial and essentially meaningless criterion for judging people. Mind you, if you're hiring someone to be a fashion consultant or even salesperson (dress) or editor (spelling), these things do matter. The trick would then be to learn when it does and doesn't.
Suppose you have a plumbing problem in your house. You read through ads looking for a plumber. If you have no other information, you'll be affected by the look of the ad, including whether things are misspelled, and you might pass up a plumber who can't seem to keep their-they're-there straight. But suppose that a friend says "Oh, you should call Pat the Plumber, because they're outstanding and cheap and fast. Although, haha, I bet they misspell something on your bill." Well, now you have more information, and the plumber's spelling skills are no longer really relevant. Right?