Something didn't jibe when Paul Arnest compared the typed resume with the handwritten job application.
"Did you notice that your last name is spelled differently?" he inquired of the job candidate.
The man's face fell. He was applying for a proofreading position in the printing industry, and he had aced the test. Yet, he couldn't even get his own name right. It was the kind of error he would be expected to catch, not make himself.
He didn't get the job.
"To the best of my recollection, he was perfectly qualified. He was an experienced proofreader," said Arnest, now program director in Compuware Corp.'s McLean office. "I don't think it was a deciding factor, but it certainly was a factor."
The incident happened years ago, when Arnest worked for another company, but he remembers it as though it were yesterday.
Even for those who don't aspire to be proofreaders, it's a useful lesson: Careful writing counts.
In a recent survey of state agency human resources directors, 88 percent said accuracy in writing was "extremely important;" 71 percent also gave the same weight to solid spelling, grammar and punctuation. The remaining participants deemed these qualities "important." The survey, conducted by the National Governors Association, was released this month by the New York-based National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges. The commission found similar results in a survey last year of private-sector employers.
"Careless or sloppy written submissions in the application process are a kiss of death," said James Harvey, a Seattle-based consultant to the commission. "After all, if you're careless with materials like this that help shape your career, how likely are you to take care with routine documents on the job?"
Just one extra or missing character in a cover letter or resume can be costly. "That's the sort of telling detail that employers notice when they're trying to make a decision about which one of several complete strangers to hire," Harvey said.
So, proofread, proofread and proofread. Watch out for typos, misspellings and subject-and-verb agreement, cautioned Michele Molnar, a self-employed corporate communications writer living in Silver Spring.
"You want your future employer to expect that you can handle the details and the big picture," she said. "It's very easy to make a mistake on your e-mail address, your phone number, simply because our eye skips over something so familiar. We think that's kind of like a no-brainer detail."
At a time when you want to trust your own editing instincts the most, trust them the least. "We cannot catch our own mistakes or ambiguities as well as someone else can. You should find somebody who's good at this," suggested Lane Goddard, who co-owns a small publishing company in Springfield with her husband, David Hatcher. Together, they wrote "Landa List," a paperback guide to grammar, proofreading and punctuation principles.
"Do not pick someone just because they're your friend," Goddard said. "Select someone who's frank."
Managers can be sticklers for old-fashioned precision -- even in a tech-savvy culture in which e-mail communication frequently replaces formal cover letters.
"You would not believe the number of people who use mostly lower-case letters in their e-mails when sending a resume. They don't capitalize the pronoun 'I,' nor do they capitalize proper nouns. It drives me crazy," said Ann Dolin, president of Educational Connections Inc. in Vienna.
She automatically deletes these messages without reading the resumes. "I figure that if these people are so nonchalant with me, they'll be even worse with parents and students. I own and operate a tutoring business where proper written language is a must."
Not everyone is so strict. At Compuware, Arnest said, "We forgive slips. We're looking at the whole person."
But why take a chance and trip up? "If you know the psychology of hiring, it's a rat race," he said. Hundreds of applications stream in for a single job. "You think of it like college admissions. You have all of these highly qualified people, and how do you decide? So very often, a little thing can make a difference."