Since it’s back to school time, we thought we’d give a nod to one of the most important parts of any education: the proper use of English to communicate effectively. Maybe it’s just us, but it seems that more and more professionals seem to have cut those classes a bit too often. Our question is: Does proper use of language matter?
Weins recently published a post in the Harvard Business Review’s blog, the title of which gives his his hiring standards: I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. In case anyone is confused, Wiens ‘ first paragraph clearly sets out his criteria:
“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.”
Everyone in his company has to take a grammar test as part of the interview process, “including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.” Programmers? Yes. According to Wiens, “programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.”
We think this goes well beyond programmers. We see casual use of language in business correspondence with knowledge workers, mangers, and executives. We also think attention to detail in thought and writing is especially important in insurance. We’ve noticed that a significant minority of the email and other documents we receive is routinely painful to read, and, at times, ambiguous in content and meaning.
This seems very peculiar given the significance of words in the main physical product of insurance: policy documentation. These documents are the entities that judges and other arbitrators use to determine the outcome of disputes between insureds and insurers. And we all know how some of these decisions can impact the insurance business.
A classic case of the unintended consequences of a stray punctuation point is occurred in 2006 in a dispute between Rogers Communication and Bell Aliant. A judge ruled that the placement of a comma indicated intent that was denied by Rogers. The result was a judgement of $1million against Rogers. In its coverage of the case, the New York Times noted that the moral of the story is: “Pay attention in grammar class.”
Are we just being cranky or do you see issues with the written language of insurance professionals? If you do, what is the impact, and, most importantly, what could and should be done?