Why You Should Hire People Who Make Typos

The best people for certain jobs may not have perfect résumés. Oh, sure, they’ll have the skills you need, but you might spot a “their” that should be “there” or vice versa. Many hiring managers reject such people on the spot. Research suggests that this may be a bad idea.

Typos are made because we’re so busy trying to convey meaning that we don’t always notice when we’ve made an error. We all know that it’s difficult to catch our own typos, but why is that? It’s because we already know what we mean, so our eyes read one thing but our brain translates it into the meaning that it already knows exists.

This, of course, means our readers have to extract our meaning without the benefit of being inside our head. Plus, they can’t see our facial expressions or hear our tone of voice as they can when we speak. This is why some people can give fantastic speeches and yet be awful writers.

So, writing–good writing–is hard to achieve. And résumés and cover letters are writing devoid of any human interaction. All the recruiter or hiring manager sees is what is on the screen and that may have their/there/they’re, your/you’re, and lose/loose errors. (Fortunately, most word processing software will put a nice red line under misspellings, which therefore don’t come up as often.) And when we see this, we reject candidates.

These errors, though, in no way indicate a lack of intelligence or even attention to detail. They do indicate a person who is very interested in getting concepts and ideas down on paper. Wired interviewed psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos, and described it this way:

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proofreading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is that what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

If you’re hiring a proofreader, a their/there mistake can be a big deal. But if you’re hiring someone who is an idea generator? Such a mistake is just not that important. The question is, was meaning conveyed?

But don’t you want detail-oriented people? Well, of course you do, if you’re hiring a copy editor. If you’re not? This is not a critical skill. Do you want to reject the marketing guy with great ideas that will allow your company to leapfrog over your competitors because he messed up a homophone? What about the computer programmer who is expected to sit back and code? Does it really matter if he knows when to use “affect” versus “effect”? And can you tell if that was a typo or an actual lack of knowledge? Just by reading a résumé or cover letter, you can’t.

So often what we do in hiring is look for any excuse at all not to hire someone. Instead of having a human who can glean meaning from a bunch of words on a page, we run it through a key word search, which doesn’t get meaning, just key words. And, then, we hit “reject!” as often as possible. When the computer spits out 15 résumés with the right key words, we then go through and look to reject as many of those as possible as well. Typo? Rejected. Wrong school? Rejected. Didn’t work for the right company? Rejected. Six months of unemployment? Rejected.

When we’re hiring, we should be focused on the meaning conveyed in the résumé, and not on how we can reject as many people as possible. A typo doesn’t mean someone is going to be a bad employee. In fact, it can mean that he or she is so focused on conveying meaning that you should bring that person on board as soon as possible.

This Throw Back Thursday post originally appeared at Inc.

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5 thoughts on “Why You Should Hire People Who Make Typos

  1. While I agree with the overall thought behind this article, if you have applicants responding to an admin assistant position, whose job is to assist in proofing reports for spelling and grammatical errors, then yes, typos are a red flag. And with our technology these days (even this website is catching my mistakes so I can fix them), there’s almost no excuse. #ColoradoAdministrativeProfessional

  2. So if I’m hiring a marketing manager, and I get 200 applications, it’s easy … I just reach into the stack (or file) of resumes and pick the most-qualified person. How hard can that be? Five minutes or less for the whole batch, and we’re good to go.

    And if you buy that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to talk with you about.

    In theory, our resume is traditionally seen as being the best possible “sales piece” we can produce, and is, it is presumed, reflective of our best work.

    Agreed, spelling “is not a critical skill” for a marketing manager … but spelling, at least as I see it, is a critical indicator of the quality of the work that that marketing manager is going to produce.

    Thus I think most people would start by finding the flaws, identifying the obvious shortcomings in that stack of resumes … the ones that don’t meet the hard requirements of the job description, the ones that don’t have contact information, the ones that have a telephone number of 9 digits as opposed to 10 … the ones with a misspelled word or three (after all, we are hiring a manager, not a manger) and who live in Sin Francisco, as opposed to San Francisco. Thus, most people, I believe, would first eliminate the chaff, and then sort through the remaining wheat to find the best applicants.

    We seem to be living in an age where everyone wants a free pass, wants to just get by, wants evaluators (of anything) to not be too careful in their evaluations.

    PS: Most spell checkers will not flag “manger” or “Sin,” so again, is our marketing manager going to take a “good enough” approach to their non-spelling activities?

    1. So….you’re going to reject dyslexic candidates? Seems problematic.

      Further, is there an actual link between spelling ability and whatever skill you’re hiring for, or are you just blindly assuming that the two are related? If you’re hiring for an editor, sure, there’s an obvious correlation–the resume is an example of their work in the specific role you’re hiring for, after all, and it’s absolutely fair to judge someone on the quality of an example of their work. But if I’m hiring, say, a structural engineer, who’s going to be working with someone I specifically hired to write, is there any evidence that spelling is in any way correlated with their abilities as a structural engineer? If I’m hiring someone to help with filing, does a few typos really indicate anything about their ability? (Typos, which are often physical things related more to manual dexterity than reading skills, are not correlated with the skillset used in filing in my experience.)

      Before you answer that, consider: The concept of consistent spelling, at least in English, is the product of the printing press. Prior to that there was no standardized spelling. William Wallace’s name was spelled multiple ways in his court transcripts–and remember, these are legal documents produced by the highest ranking individuals and the most educated people in the land. The standardized spellings were somewhat arbitrarily chosen, largely by whoever decided to make the dictionary. (Which leads to a funny story: An editor rejected LOTR because “Dwarves” wasn’t a word according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien responded “I wrote that dictionary, do not correct me.”) Further complicating this, English is an amalgamation of multiple languages. This matters because it means English’s phonetic rules when it comes to spelling are very, very loose compared to other languages. To really understand English spelling pretty much requires a background in etymology.

      This isn’t about getting a free pass, but rather about questioning a long-standing assumption to determine if it is, in fact, true. If it’s not–if typos are not correlated with ability, or if a few minor typos are correlated with higher than average ability in a task–than rejecting someone’s resume for having a typo in it is irrational. The hiring process sucks and is often (usually, I’m tempted to say always) broken anyway; wouldn’t it be better to have systems based on actual facts, rather than untested mere assumptions?

      1. Dinwar —

        You ask, “So….you’re going to reject dyslexic candidates?”

        And my answer is no, I’m not going to reject dyslexic candidates.

        But I am going to reject someone who may be dyslexic, and if they’re old enough to be applying for a job are old enough to know that they have dyslexia, and should have enough self-awareness to have one or two others check their resume for spelling and grammar errors before submitting it because, you know, a self-aware dyslexic would know that doing that is a wise and most-likely a necessary thing to do, and I am going to conclude that how they manage their resume is how they will manage their work should I hire them.

        You also ask, “… wouldn’t it be better to have systems based on actual facts, rather than untested mere assumptions?” to which I reply, of course it would. And thus, when someone submits a resume to me with, say, 2 misspelled words and 2 grammar errors, the actual fact is that that person did not apply quality control to that document, did not care enough to make sure that something as important as their resume was the best it could be, and I would be wise (and prudent) to assume that that is how they will approach their work should I hire them.

        1. My experience with dyslexics is that you DRASTICALLY under-estimate how bad this disorder can be. I know people who are so dyslexic that they functionally cannot write. They are fantastic in other areas–one is one of the best draftsmen I’ve ever met, and another is one of the best industrial safety officers as far as inspections and field work are concerned–but they rely heavily on technology to put words on a screen, and the level of technology we have is simply insufficient to accomplish this as of yet.

          So yes, your criteria–whether you intend it or not–will discriminate against dyslexics. Among others, but that’s bad enough.

          The rest of your post reminds me of a scene from the show “House”. Dr. House was treating someone in a perfectly-pressed suit, and that person was ripping into House for dressing slovenly. House responded that the man had athlete’s foot up his nose due to poor hygiene practices. I seriously doubt you could explain the logic behind any grammatical rule or spelling (I note that you’ve ignored my comments on etymology).

          If this were a job interview I would not consider working for you, and probably warn others against doing so. I have zero interest in working for someone who’s uptight, discriminatory, resistant to change, hostile to correction, and actively opposed to evidence-based decision making. Those are MUCH bigger issues than an occasional typo or violating rules that are (people die in my line of work because of such things), and if you spend five minutes looking into this you can prove this for yourself, fundamentally arbitrary.

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