Is judging someone’s grammar a good hiring test?

punctuationI recently came across an article in the Harvard Business Review titled I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why written by Kyle Wiens. He is the CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company dedicated to helping manufacturers publish documentation. Wiens describes why having applicants with good grammar is important to him. Let’s parse this and see if Mr. Wiens is on safe ground.

A definition of grammar

Mr. Wiens is a self-professed grammar “stickler.” He rankles at people who misuse commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation.  When I looked up grammar the definitions I found included:

  • The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.
  • The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history.
  • The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language.
  • The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.
  • A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes.
  • Writing or speech judged with regard to such a set of rules.

To me it appears that grammar is more than just punctuation, so Wiens needs to change his description of himself to “punctuation stickler.” And that is okay. Punctuation can have a major effect on how things are perceived and interpreted. Look at the picture above if you need an example.

The hiring test

Mr. Wiens says that he administers a “grammar” test to all employees. As he says “Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin.” Now Mr. Wiens is in the writing business, so it makes sense for many of his employees to be good with grammar and punctuation. But he does not restrict the test to people with writing responsibility. He says “Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.”
Wiens feels that good grammar is a demonstration of the skill sets needed to be successful in any position. He argues that “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.” The question is whether that is a valid argument.

Uniform Guidelines

In 1978 the EEOC published the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. In this document the EEOC established that selection procedures have to be both valid and reliable indicators of job success in order to be used as a selection tool. Does Wiens’ grammar test meet this standard? He seems to think it does, but the question is does he have the data to prove it? I am certain that none of us would argue that grammar usage would be important to a writer, or manager, or a sales rep or even a programmer that has to communicate what they have done to a non-programming audience. But what about the shelf stocker or the broom pusher? You might argue that a basic ability to read and understand English might be important in understanding basic directions, but truly having a complete grasp of punctuation?

Other issues

Part of the reason the Uniform Guidelines exist is to cut down on discrimination. Adverse impact discrimination is defined by your selection process, which, if the selection rate of a minority group is only 80% of your majority group then by definition you have engaged in adverse selection. That doesn’t mean you have done something wrong, it just means that your process has that impact. But you have to show there is a justifiable business reason for your process to have had that impact. As an example, if the grammar test had the effect of screening out more African Americans, a possibility because of educational levels, then the grammar test is having an adverse impact on them. If the grammar test is indeed a valid and reliable indicator of job success then that impact is okay. If the grammar test has not been shown to be a valid and reliable indicator of job success for each job on which it is being used, then it is not okay.
The question then is did Wiens consider whether the grammar test is valid and reliable as a selection test. The Uniform Guidelines state “Evidence of the validity of a test or other selection procedure by a criterion-related validity study should consist of empirical data demonstrating that the selection procedure is predictive of or significantly correlated with important elements of job performance.” Most companies fall short on the empirical data, unless they are using a test that has been “normed” on a national basis. Home-grown tests usually don’t have the numbers to make them statistically significant.
Other issues that Wiens may run afoul of include disability discrimination, something he alluded to; and nationality discrimination.

Should he stop testing?

I am actually a fan of testing to help find the best talent. In Wiens case, given that he has two publishing/writing companies, this grammar test may be entirely appropriate. But as the HR manager advising him I would have made sure that the grammar test meets the standard of being valid and reliable. I would make sure that proper use of grammar is indeed an indicator of job success and I would make sure it is in every job description.

Your takeaway

Wiens potential mistake should be a takeaway for you. There is nothing wrong with using tests, but you have to make sure they meet the requirements set forth in the Uniform Guidelines. Home grown tests are not generally going to meet that standard. Go find something in the marketplace that does meet the standard that matches the jobs for which you hire people.
By the way, Wiens wrote this article in 2012 and it has received about 4200 comments, which I did not wade through. I am not sure if he still uses the grammar test. That is irrelevant my point is still a valid one.

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