If you were hiring for an administrative assistant position, would you hire a candidate who was a solid worker, but had poor writing skills? Because I can’t decide if this is a deal breaker or not.
July 5, 2010 5:21 PM   Subscribe

If you were hiring for an administrative assistant position, would you hire a candidate who was a solid worker, but had poor writing skills? Because I can’t decide if this is a deal breaker or not.

Anonymous, because several co-workers are avid mefi readers, and though they may recognize the situation, I'd like deniability:

I'm hiring the administrative staff person for our office, who I will supervise. I'd like people's opinion on:

1. How you would perceive an academic department if you regularly received email correspondence with 1-2 grammar/spelling errors from their administrative assistant?

2. What Mac based technology can help with correcting grammar/spelling issues? (spell check programs?)

There is a temp who has been with us for a few months who has a number of great qualities: hardworking, willing to help others, pleasant to clients, and an all around good egg. She is now applying for the permanent administrative position in our office.

But, their writing ability is poor. English is their first language, but they frequently (about 30-40% of the time) have small grammatical or spelling errors in their written correspondence: subject/verb disagreement, missing punctuation, etc. This person is also the assistant to the head of the department, and is responsible for daily email correspondence with students/faculty/staff/vendors.

When I first noticed this, I thought they were just rushing to get work done and making mistakes. I discussed it with them, and they thanked me for bringing it to their attention, apologized for rushing, and said they’d be more careful. However, since then, I've still regularly noticed errors. Now that they are applying for the permanent position, I need to determine how significant this is, and how I can best help them, if we do hire them.

My department is split about whether or not this is a deal breaker in terms of hiring them. Some folks insist it reflects poorly on the office, while others shrug and say that academic admins and spelling/grammar mistakes are just a fact of life.

While they will let me hire this person if I push for it, I can’t promise that this person’s writing issues will ever improve. We can’t proof every piece of correspondence, and I don’t want to get dinged for their poor writing skills over time. I can create form/template emails for many things, but that would only address about 50% of the daily email correspondence.

Questions: I realize there are a couple different questions in here – basically, I would really appreciate people’s thoughts on the situation because I haven’t hired this person yet. Do I discuss this again with the person? If so, how? If I don't hire them, do I let them know that this was (one of) the factors? What if this is a dyslexia/language issue, and not a rushing issue? If I hire them, what resources might help? If there Mac based software that might help? Any other thoughts?

No candidate is perfect, but would this be a deal breaker for you?

This is in the US, if it matters. Thanks for reading.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (52 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can’t promise that this person’s writing issues will ever improve.

That would be the deal breaker. The problem has been pointed out to her, it hasn't improved and her poor skills will reflect on the office and you especially, for hiring her.

That said, pulling her aside after the position has been filled and pointing our why she didn't get it would be very helpful to her personally and professionally.
posted by new brand day at 5:27 PM on July 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

In an academic department? I think it's a deal breaker, particularly since she'll be writing correspondence on someone else's behalf. You might ask that person what they think; maybe they'll feel differently, but if someone was regularly sending out stuff in my name with errors, it would drive me CRAZY.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:29 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

It would definitely be a deal breaker for me. I've worked as an admin assistant and I cringe when I get poorly written emails from colleagues, especially with all of the spell-checking and grammar-checking software available, some of that is just pure laziness! I'm not saying this is true of your admin assistant, but...

Anyway, is there any way you can bring this up with her *before* you make your decision? Since you know her and are comfortable with her, perhaps she can redouble her efforts to write better. It would be easier on you to hire someone you know who's familiar with the way you do things rather than break in a new person.
posted by patheral at 5:36 PM on July 5, 2010

Her emails will reflect on you, and for me, it'd be a deal breaker.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:37 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Forget an academic department. Correspondence riddled with typos? No.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:39 PM on July 5, 2010

Absolutely, 100% a dealbreaker. They say that if you're ever down to just two candidates, pick the better writer, but if you have one otherwise decent candidate who represents your organization as sloppy and unintelligent, that's a dealbreaker.

Worse, you're in an educational institution. There really is no room for making simple mistakes because they'll reflect incredibly poorly on your office. This will appear as if either the head of the department doesn't have high standards, or they don't know how to spell, but either outcome is bad and you don't want your constituents to have to shrug off bad grammar and typos from an otherwise professional post.
posted by disillusioned at 5:39 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

No way should this be acceptable, much less an expected norm. The news is full of people who are overqualified to do the jobs they are applying for. Why would you hire someone who is clearly underqualified?
posted by sageleaf at 5:39 PM on July 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Deal breaker.

. . . is responsible for daily email correspondence with students/faculty/staff/vendors.

There are lots of unemployed people out there who would fulfill all of your criteria without you worrying about your departments' image. Since you've already discussed this issue, and seen no improvement, you are free to move on.
posted by killy willy at 5:41 PM on July 5, 2010

would this be a deal breaker for you?

Of course. This reflects poorly on the department and is related to one of the core duties of the candidate's job description. If you were hiring an accountant, it wouldn't be as big of a deal. Someone with a high school education should be able to self-edit in order to construct grammatical, properly spelled sentences, especially if that person expects to have a job that revolves around writing on a regular basis.
posted by deanc at 5:42 PM on July 5, 2010

What percentage of their work is correspondence? Also, what is their response, both verbal and body language, when you pointed out their spelling/grammar? Do you feel they have a block against bettering their writing skill or that they may not be able to learn it?

If you feel it is something they might be able to improve, you should look into a provisional hire. If you do a provisional hire, you are going to have to have some clear goals in mind and a method on how to get there. Depends on 1. how much better does this person do the rest of the job compared to other candidates and 2. How much time do you have to devote to developing this person professionally?
posted by Foam Pants at 5:43 PM on July 5, 2010

You've already pointed out to her that this needs addressing and their work hasn't improved. As others have mentioned, this will reflect badly on you. There are better candidates available; post the job and you will see a range of candidates who will be a better all round fit.
posted by arcticseal at 5:44 PM on July 5, 2010

This person is also the assistant to the head of the department, and is responsible for daily email correspondence with students/faculty/staff/vendors.

Written English skills are a core part of this person's job. This person is the (written) voice of your office with students/faculty/staff and vendors. Since you're her supervisor, her emails are your emails. Would you be embarrassed if they were being mailed out from your email address, with your name at the top and bottom?

Everybody gets bitten by a typo, misplaced homonym, or failure in subject/verb agreement now and again. Most readers will forgive you for that, occasionally. However, if she's regularly sending out your messages full of grammar and spelling errors, that reflects poorly on not just her, but your office. Even outside of academia, which generally would place a bigger than average value on a good education, that's a huge deal breaker.

You can, and should, do better. No hire.
posted by toxic at 5:56 PM on July 5, 2010

Dealbreaker. Administrative assistants generally draft the vast majority of correspondence for those they work for. If they're super nitpicky grammar rules that most people are not going to know are "wrong" or even be reading carefully enough to catch if they do know the nitipickiest of English rules, I wouldn't worry. However, if the person clearly either is not reading over their correspondence before applying or just doesn't have a firm enough grasp for you to trust their writing without having to check it over yourself, I would hesitate to hire her.
posted by ishotjr at 6:03 PM on July 5, 2010

In general, I would say that a person who writes badly is a bad fit for a position which involves communicating with the public. Her mistakes, if they continue, will reflect badly on your department. But you're obviously impressed by this woman's work ethic, and you seem to be veering toward wanting to give her a chance. I think that's admirable.

If the staff member is otherwise bright and motivated, and does not have a specific learning disorder, there is no reason she can't learn to write better. Good spelling and grammar are skills. They can be learnt. Some people write badly for no other reason than that no-one ever taught them to write well. The fact that she's embarrassed by her mistakes implies a lack of educational opportunities, not a lack of care or diligence.

So, why not compromise? You're at a university. The university presumably offers introductory writing classes, and may have a learning centre which provides remedial tuition in spelling and grammar. So, why not employ the staff member on probation, with a requirement that she take the necessary classes to get her writing up to scratch? If she's as hard-working as you say she is, she'll seize the opportunity and you'll end up with a loyal staff member who writes well.
posted by embrangled at 6:07 PM on July 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yep, dealbreaker.

Granted, I am weirdly obsessed with spelling. I'm one of those people who refuses to buy the local newspaper because the 'journalists' can't figure out the difference between there, their and they're.

I would notice one mistake in a piece of correspondence and I would remember it. If it got to two or three or more mistakes in that single piece of correspondence, it would permanently colour my view of your organisation and not in a good way. I'd be subconsciously thinking 'sloppy, lazy, not interested in delivering their best, I don't think they value the information they're delivering so I can't really trust it. Or they don't value me as a contact because they can't be bothered to do this right'.

And yes, tell her why she didn't get the job. They may be skills that she just cannot refine but at least she'll know to aim for positions where those skills aren't as important.

(A recent example: I took a white gold ring into a jeweller yesterday, and I had to tell her how to spell rhodium when she wrote out the docket. I'll be extra careful to examine the re-plated ring when I get it back, because... well, she's a jeweller and she can't spell rhodium? So what other aspects of her application to her trade are lacking?)
posted by malibustacey9999 at 6:10 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

The way you've framed the issue leads to the easy answers above: "well, of course, it matters...." But the only answer that applies to the everyday work world in which questions like this actually arise can be "it depends." It depends on how important writing actually is to this position; it depends what other resources (people, technology, etc.) exist in your environment that could compensate for this gap in the candidate's abilities; and most importantly, it depends on who the alternative candidates are for the position and what strengths and liabilities they bring. If you're in an academic setting, even with the economy being what it is these days, you may not have access to the widest possible pool of outside candidates, given the campus's labor agreements, etc. For these reasons, it's less about absolute judgments (which are easy) than thinking strategically (which is much messier).

On the practical side, why not go through a representative batch of writing/correspondences that have been generated by this position and see how much might be a) off loaded to other personnel, b) automated via templates/technology, and/or c) overseen by someone with the requisite editing skills? FWIW, in many workplaces where this issue comes up (and it's pretty common), there's an informal bartering system that often emerges: those who struggle with editing/proofreading find someone else nearby who can help with that in exchange for assistance on matters the other party needs done (such as statistics, technology, and so forth). I've seen this arrangement quite frequently among non-native English speakers/writers, and though it clearly adds a layer of complexity to some workplace tasks, the jobs still get done.

Of course, it all depends on how this candidate's strengths balance her liabilities.
posted by 5Q7 at 6:12 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can't guarantee that the situation will improve, but it's also likely that merely telling someone about the problem without giving them the tools or methods to improve probably won't result in much improvement either.

In the past, when starting as a technical writer, I was sent on a compulsory day-long training program for all new staff (known as "grammar camp") and I picked up some very useful tricks and mnemonics for certain situations which have stood me in good stead over the years (I already had an Eng Lit degree and three years Latin, so I was fairly sure I had at least the basics covered). Frex, a complex sentence that you've edited a few times can often develop a subject/verb disagreement, which can be hard to notice due to length and overfamiliarity until you read it aloud (or under your breath).

You might not want or be able to give that level of support, the timing may not be adequate, and it might not work for this person (a lot depends on the kinds of mistakes they're making), but some extra training to sand down rough edges should at least be an option you consider if the only thing stopping you from the hire is the occasional interchange of it's and its.
posted by Sparx at 6:17 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are their other candidates, and, if so, do you know what their writing skills are? And can your employer offer a salary to attract people with good writing skills?

I'm going to go a bit against the grain and say it depends (although on preview I agree with 5Q7). When I get emails that come from admin assistants or secretaries and they have errors, I understand that poorly paid positions don't attract the most educated people. I would never dream of having any of my agency's support staff send out unedited correspondence, but that may be more a factor of low salaries. Academia's salaries may be better (although from what I've heard I sincerely doubt it), or you may be a stepping stone job that can attract good candidates who will work for peanuts.
posted by Mavri at 6:18 PM on July 5, 2010

Dealbreaker, but only because she's handling external correspondence.

However, at all the jobs I've ever had, I've received poorly-written emails on a daily basis, from all levels of management, clients, etc. A lot of people don't put much thought or attention into crafting an email. It's a shame, but it's common.

Since she's otherwise fantastic, can you do anything to help her find a good permanent job that's a better fit? Perhaps offer to be a reference, or put her in touch with someone in another department who's looking?
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:25 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

This person is essentially your representative. I say dealbreaker. I wouldn't want messages from a department I headed to have obvious errors like that.
posted by inturnaround at 6:28 PM on July 5, 2010

As far as your second question goes, by the way, there are essentially no programs that can help in any serious way. They are so far incapable of fixing "its" for "it's," and the like.

My household has some dealings with a college and when the president's staff or other administrators send out emails with typos or terrible English, it is always quite off-putting.

That being said... You can't teach someone to be a wonderful, helpful, thoughtful, energetic person who brings pleasure to the office. But you can, very slowly, teach them advanced grammar and spelling.

I would encourage, if possible, being really transparent about this process, and also trying a provisional hire, like so: "This is a job we'd like you to have but we cannot make it permanent at this time. Here is why: written communications are essential to our mission, and yours don't quite meet the need. Is there a way we can work on your writing skills to bring them up to par with your other abilities--ones which, by the way, we really value?"

(Nobody knock me for any grammar or typos! This is a high-stakes question to answer, in terms of written English! Heh.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:30 PM on July 5, 2010 [10 favorites]

Mod note: comment removed - please be helpful, not churlish. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:44 PM on July 5, 2010

I can create form/template emails for many things, but that would only address about 50% of the daily email correspondence.

This is a pretty bizarre form of affirmative action. Any scenario that requires you to take on her work in order to absorb some of the damage she will be doing is not the right choice.
posted by thejoshu at 6:45 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

RJ Reynolds As far as your second question goes, by the way, there are essentially no programs that can help in any serious way. They are so far incapable of fixing "its" for "it's," and the like.

What? Spelling and grammar aren't magical ninja powers. They're just skills; sets of conventions, rules and exceptions, and they can be learnt. Most universities have remedial courses for students who write poorly. These courses are effective when students are motivated to learn.

If the staff member is embarrassed by her mistakes and wants to improve her writing, intensive education in spelling and grammar can help. What the OP needs to assess is whether the staff member is a strong enough candidate in other respects to justify this investment in her training.
posted by embrangled at 7:05 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was in a department for several years which had an admin assistant who was very nice but just not a very good admin assistant. The department had kept her in the job because she was nice, and it was tricky to fire someone unless they had really done something Wrong. She eventually left, and the replacement person was very nice and also an excellent admin assistant. The difference was amazing. Don't hire her just because she's nice.

You've gotten a good look at her work. Here are some things I value in an academic dept secretary: Is she very on-the-ball about deadlines, organization, etc? Is she diplomatic and able to keep department members fulfilling their obligations on time (big job when dealing with faculty!), without causing resentment? Is she tactful, professional and avoids gossip? Does she navigate the university's many other offices and systems with ease (does she know who to call in the registrar's office or the library etc, with specific questions)?

If she's really great in those non-writing areas, you should think about how much luck you've had with other hires. (I know that hiring admin assistants in some areas of the country, the pickings are slim and you may find that the average candidate will be poor in the non-writing areas as well.) If she's way better than others in these non-writing areas, I would think about overlooking the writing and trying to contain the damage.

But if she's about average for candidates you've seen, then I think the writing is a dealbreaker. It's very tough to improve your grammar as an adult even if you're trying.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:08 PM on July 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

thanked me for bringing it to their attention, apologized for rushing, and said they’d be more careful...

It sounds like you asked her not to rush anymore, not that you actually pointed out that her writing had errors. She may not know she has a problem. The kindest thing to do would be to let her know what she's actually doing wrong. It's probably too late to fix it for this post, unless you can put off hiring someone permanently for a few more months, but she needs to know the truth.

If you can delay the permanent hire, then, depending on the severity of the problem, maybe a writing tutor could help. You'd need her to have enough time to learn proper usage (spell check can catch non-usage errors), then enough time to prove it's really taken.

But it would take a while to really be confident in her correspondence... so, maybe not practical overall.

Good luck. Sorry you're in this position. Support public education.
posted by amtho at 7:09 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

RJ Reynolds As far as your second question goes, by the way, there are essentially no programs that can help in any serious way. They are so far incapable of fixing "its" for "it's," and the like.

What? Spelling and grammar aren't magical ninja powers. They're just skills..
embrangled, I think that response meant there are no computer programs that can automatically fix bad prose or usage errors.
posted by amtho at 7:11 PM on July 5, 2010

If it's an academic department would it be possible for this person to take some on-campus classes in composition or writing or grammar?
posted by 6550 at 7:15 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Basically, written command of the English language is an important part of your image. I refuse to apply to employers who can't spell; I cringe at emails (especially from faculty) with spelling mistakes - it affects my regard for the sender greatly, and not in a positive fashion. Once in a while (say every two dozen messages) and I'll chalk it up to a bad day or human imperfection. Several times every single message? Carelessness, incompetence, stupidity would be some of my kinder assessments. Along with 'Christ, how the hell do they ever publish? I pity their editor.'
posted by ysabet at 7:26 PM on July 5, 2010

it would be a dealbreaker for me ... but if she's a temp, and she's really nice in other ways, talk to her again about the gammer/spelling issue. tell her that it's a dealbreaker and tell her she needs to fix it. and then see if she does.

if she's good she'll find a way. if not, then find someone new and let her go. but don't accept someone failing on this pretty important issue. you deserve better.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:31 PM on July 5, 2010

In my experience, there are roughly two types of people who take administrative support jobs in university settings: young, bright liberal arts grads who stick around for a couple years and move on, and lifers who may not have the same level of polished, professional writing skills. If this person is likely to stay in this role for several years, assuming you want a longer-term employee, it would be well worth investing in a writing course as part of her new-hire training.

Some people don't realize that they're bad writers. She agreed not to rush, but she may have no idea that her grammar, rushed or not, is poor. Because she was receptive to criticism of her work (an exceptionally valuable quality in an employee), I wouldn't decline to hire her without trying to address the issue directly with her. Pleasant, hard working, helpful administrative support staff who aren't anxiously looking for a next career move are worth keeping around.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:32 PM on July 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Since you clearly like this person a lot, I would suggest that you write her a really nice letter of recommendation and do what you can to help her find a different job. There are lots of people out there who'd make great administrative assistants and also have good writing skills.

But be upfront with her about why she didn't get the job. Even if you did previously suggest to her that her errors must've been because she was rushing, if her typing didn't improve after you spoke with her about it, it sounds like she can't identify when she's making mistakes. To hope this would improve in the near future would be expecting quite a lot from her, and it sounds like worrying about the quality of her emails is stressful enough for you as it is.
posted by wondermouse at 7:36 PM on July 5, 2010

If you had not seen this person work for the last few months and only interviewed the candidate and saw a writing sample would you hire that candidate?

If a good portion of this person's job is to send correspondence, it is a deal breaker no matter how nice or hard working said candidate may be. I hate to say it, but there are a lot of hard working nice people out there who can spell and write (or at least can look it up). I think the only hesitation is that you like this person personally. This is business and the hire is a reflection on you for hiring and the department for the poor writing. Sorry.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:39 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be so quick to call this a deal-breaker. It's important, to be sure. But LobsterMitten brings up other important qualities -- all of which strike me as more important than typographical errors. If you have someone who is capable of navigating university bureaucracy, who can juggle many assignments and deadlines, who gets thing done, then you're lucky. These people are far too rare, and in this case, I'd suggest either courses to improve communications skills or potentially moving some of those responsibilities to a different assistant.

Seriously, if you have a candidate who can be trusted with confidential information; who can meet multiple deadlines; who is personable and responsible; who can keep faculty on track; who can promptly maneuver through unexpected bits of bureaucratic red tape -- you have a keeper, even if this person isn't great with spelling/grammar. There are much much worse things that an admin assistant can do badly. I'm coming down firmly on the "Better the devil you know" side of this equation.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:48 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, definitely do not hire this person.

In my experience, people are either innately good at spelling/grammar or they're not, and they're either sticklers or they're not. This person is neither and probably can't be easily taught.

Personally, I might be able to get past the errors if they were clearly due to dyslexia or some other learning disability (e.g., if the person routinely transposed letters). But just plain bad grammar and spelling in an academic admin: no, definitely not. Plus, you've pointed out the problem, and he/she hasn't improved, which means they never will -- or at least, not without_ way_ too much effort from you.

In general, don't hire people you aren't really thrilled about. You will never love them more than the moment they accept the job, so if you have reservations today, that's a very very bad sign. Plus (one more thing!) in admin jobs, what really matters are the opinions of the people the admin supports....... and you already know this person is not highly valued. Which means if you hire him/her, you'll be spending a lot of time defending that decision.

So no. Hire someone else, and be honest with this person about why. It's completely fair and reasonable. If it makes you feel bad, imagine firing the person in a few months, or wrestling with them daily over crummy performance. That would be much worse.
posted by Susan PG at 7:49 PM on July 5, 2010

Another thought, inspired by this: "There are lots of people out there who'd make great administrative assistants." Unless your university is unusually generous with salaries, there's actually quite a bit of compromising you have to do. Generally speaking, an administrative assistant who is awesome from day one can get a significantly higher salary in a corporate setting compared to a university setting. This doesn't necessarily mean that compromising on poor writing skills is the correct choice, but I would caution against thinking that passing up this person means you'll be interviewing people who have everything she has to offer plus excellent writing skills (and who will stick around at a university admin assistant salary for years).
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:49 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

One other thing! A good rule of thumb is that if you are ever hesitating over whether to hire someone, DON'T DO IT. I've learned this the hard way, more than once :-(
posted by Susan PG at 7:51 PM on July 5, 2010

I truly mean for this to be helpful - I'm a stickler for clean writing myself.

There are some major grammatical errors in your own post (subject/verb stuff in an effort not to assign a specific gender). You may not have noticed them, but they're there.

My point is, there are things that jump out at you and other things that don't. You may be sensitive to this person's particular mistakes, when on the whole it's no worse than your own or mine or anyone else's, just in different ways that seem particularly egregious to you. It might be worth checking in with a colleague to see if he or she also feels like the candidate's writing is overall sub-par.

This isn't to say that truly poor writing isn't a good reason not to hire someone - it is, in my book. But some perspective might be helpful.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:34 PM on July 5, 2010

The admin in my (large) officeplace is the same way. Fortunately they don't interface with anyone important outside our workplace because I think it makes them look ignorant. I'd say this is a dealbreaker, especially in an academic environment.
posted by thatone at 8:39 PM on July 5, 2010

peachfuzz - I interpreted that as a relic of an attempt "no specific gender" that gave way to "she" but wasn't fixed everywhere. Anyway, wouldn't it be nice to have an admin assistant who was able to catch and fix that kind of thing?
posted by amtho at 8:39 PM on July 5, 2010

Dealbreaker, for all the reasons stated above by others.

I have colleagues who terrible spellers and tend to make grammatical mistakes, but they are aware of this and make sure that their work doesn't reflect it. They use spellcheck, proofread carefully, memorize rules, and get colleagues to do a quick backup proofread.
posted by desuetude at 9:00 PM on July 5, 2010

Is there a workaround? Why can't her work be "signed off on" by the person she's supposedly writing for? If she were putting my name on the bottom of a letter, I'd want to see it before it went out (if only to read what I was supposed to be saying.) Send it back for revision if it's wrong. No harm in that.

If that wouldn't work in your department, i.e., you need her to just handle stuff so you don't have to even know about it, then deal-breaker. (Although, a position with that much autonomy might cost you a higher-paid title than "assistant.") You can't be having people receiving correspondence from your office with glaring English errors.
posted by ctmf at 9:01 PM on July 5, 2010

Not clear if 30-40% of the letters have problems or if 30-40% of the grammar and such are wrong.

Agreed that the candidate may well not have an awareness of the correct way to do things. Maybe broach the subject of her taking a course, reading books, etc. Sure, in a perfect world you'd find a good (or at least adequate) writer with her personal qualities, but I'd take the fixable former over the writer.

Is there any sort of probationary period? It'd be an opportunity to give her time to improve.
posted by ambient2 at 9:21 PM on July 5, 2010

Is there any sort of probationary period? It'd be an opportunity to give her time to improve.

But...this person has already been working as a temp in this office for several months, has had errors pointed out, and hasn't improved. Even though they're trying to get hired!
posted by desuetude at 10:06 PM on July 5, 2010

Susan PG: One other thing! A good rule of thumb is that if you are ever hesitating over whether to hire someone, DON'T DO IT. I've learned this the hard way, more than once :-(

Yes, this.

I love how compassionate you're being, OP, and wish there was a good solution. Could you offer another temp contract (three months maybe) on the understanding that spelling and grammar must improve during this time? Since you're working in an academic setting, there must be some resources available if your assistant is willing to partake of them.

In the meantime, your assistant might try writing in Word, spell/grammar checking, and then copying the text into her email program. I often do this when I'm writing important correspondence, since I know I have some spelling blind-spots.

If nothing's changed at the end of three months, you can let her go with good conscience. But I suspect what may happen is that you'll end up with a great employee who appreciates that you gave her a chance to improve, and did.
posted by Georgina at 11:45 PM on July 5, 2010

huge fucking deal breaker. i cringe when i get emails from admins, on behalf of their muckity mucks, with huge grammar and spelling errors. i have to restrain myself from forwarding them right back to said muckity muck and pointing out what an idiot they have working for them. i mean, run an autospellcheck before you send the email out. if it's an important email, proof it before you send it. i mean, christ, when i was a secretary/admin one of the criteria was being able to, you know, type and proofread and all that jazz. is that not a criteria of yours?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:47 PM on July 5, 2010

If someone pointed out to me that my grammar and spelling were poor, then I'd immediately turn on the spell checker within Outlook*. Sure it won't fix everything, but it should make a substantial improvement.

The fact she hasn't even done that when you flagged this, speaks volumes.

* In Outlook 2003, there are two settings: Tools > Options > Mail Format > Use Microsoft Word [version] to edit e-mail messages (which provides the squiggles under spelling and grammar errors) and Tools > Options > Spelling > Always check spelling before sending (which forces you to spell check before the e-mail is sent)
posted by mr_silver at 3:04 AM on July 6, 2010

I'm with the people saying that based on how you've explained it, she may not even know there's a problem, and it'd be fair to let her know so she realises there's a need for improvement.

I admit though, that I'm very much in the dealbreaker camp.

It'd be one thing if there was any sort of progression or improvement, but she's doing the same things she did before you warned her about the mistakes you'd found.

There are people who would already know this stuff, who wouldn't be making repeated errors in one of the most important parts of the job in the first place, who are already strong in these skills. It's just a matter of whether you want to look for that person, or take the chance that the temp already in place is both willing and able to step up. What will you do if they're not willing, or if they try and don't end up capable? In your place, I'd find someone who already had the skills to avoid that situation.
posted by lemniskate at 5:21 AM on July 6, 2010

embrangled, I think that response meant there are no computer programs that can automatically fix bad prose or usage errors.

My apologyies, RJ Reynolds, I completely misread your comment. I thought you were suggesting that there are no programs (ie, courses, teaching methods) which can successfully teach people to write well. Clearly, that's not the case, hence my mis-directed outrage.
posted by embrangled at 5:36 AM on July 6, 2010

Ahem, make that apologies.
posted by embrangled at 5:37 AM on July 6, 2010

I work in an academic environment, not in admin though. I see the admins as communicating on behalf of their employers, so if you are all okay with that then OK, but as a recipient of communication I'd be annoyed by what I would interpret as lack of attention to detail, and consequently not caring enough about the recipient.

There are generally employee courses in business communication offered by HR at many academic institutions; is there a fair way to make one of those couses a requirement for her professional growth plan (costs covered of course)?
posted by variella at 11:38 AM on July 6, 2010

TBH my first reaction to getting communication from admins on behalf of faculty/staff with grammatical errors or spelling mistakes is "Fuck, if you can't be bothered to spell-check or construct sentences properly why should I be bothered to spend my time reading this shit?". And then I'm even more annoyed because I spent more time thinking that than the person on the other end did writing the letter/memo/email. :)
posted by variella at 11:43 AM on July 6, 2010

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