As you look around your company's offices, chances are you see people working quietly at their keyboard—sending e-mail, writing reports, creating PowerPoint presentations, etc. And you may assume they are all presenting an image of professionalism on behalf of your company, using well-crafted sentences, professional-looking formatting, and proper grammar. But the evidence from numerous studies indicates such an assumption would be naive at best. The reality of your employees' writing habits could be costing your company dearly.
Writing skills have been on the decline in recent decades, due to a confluence of factors that include falling educational standards, cultural trends such as street slang, and the growing dominance of unedited news sources such as blogs.
This decline occurred just when employees—and their employers—need writing skills more than ever. According to SunGard, a data services provider, approximately 90 percent of today's business communication takes place electronically—primarily via e-mail. This means phone calls, meetings, and other forms of communication represent 10 percent or less of daily interactions with customers, colleagues, and business partners. As a result, virtually every employee must be a writer—whether or not they are prepared for the task at hand. And the fact is, many are not.
"Deficient" in Basic Writing Skills
According to a 2006 Conference Board study, 72 percent of employers rate high school graduates as "deficient" in basic writing skills. In addition, 28 percent of employers rate college graduates as deficient in written communication skills.
Inevitably, these deficiencies have found their way into the corporate world. In 2003, the College Board conducted a survey of 120 corporations, and concluded that one-third of employees in blue-chip U.S. companies write poorly. In addition, 45 percent of HR executives in a recent survey listed writing as the skill most lacking among entry-level job seekers.
Lack of professionalism in writing can take many forms. For example, many employees consistently fail to use proper sentence structure and spelling. Others fail to include contact information, making it difficult for customers and colleagues to get in touch. Many younger employees employ instant message-style abbreviations and jargon not appropriate in business communication.
Unless your company monitors its daily e-mail traffic—a daunting task—you may not realize employees are sending out poorly-written messages to customers and colleagues. At the same time, unless your employees know your company cares about proper communication, they will continue to employ poor writing habits.
The importance of writing has been growing since the dawn of the personal computer age. But in a challenging economic environment, writing can make the difference between success or failure for a company—and its individual employees. Among the potential costs are:
- Lost revenues: As you strive to win deals in a highly competitive global economy, your organization needs to present the best possible image to customers and prospects. However, even your most talented employees may be undermining that image through sloppy and unprofessional writing. For example, consider the customer who receives e-mail from two prospective suppliers. The first reads:
hey tom heres a quote...LMK...ben
The second reads:
Dear Mr. Kendrick:
As promised, I am attaching a detailed estimate for the Juniper Street project. I will be happy to discuss any questions you may have.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to bid on this important project.
All other factors being equal, which company is more likely to win the project? And which employee is more likely to succeed in his or her career?
Reduced productivity: When a colleague receives a message like this one...
Dan didnt get it whats happening
...how is he or she to respond? The time required to decipher the sender's intent, or to follow up for clarification, is time taken away from more productive tasks.
Career damage: Employees who can't communicate well are less productive in their day-to-day work, requiring more time to compose even rudimentary messages. More important, they are less likely to be perceived as professional and proficient by their colleagues and customers. These deficiencies ultimately limit employee career options, and directly impact future growth—both professionally and personally. And while it may be assumed that better-educated employees are less likely to be writing-challenged, the problem extends to all levels of the educational spectrum. For example, a recent article in CareerJournal, published by The Wall Street Journal, noted that poor writing and speaking skills are the No.1 pet peeve of corporate MBA recruiters.
Traditional and online solutions
Traditional classroom training remains popular among companies that recognize the need to improve writing skills—especially for employees in customer-facing roles. In fact, the National Commission on Writing estimates that large corporate employers will spend more than $3.1 billion on remedial writing courses in the years ahead.
Online resources can provide a cost-effective alternative or complement to classroom training, with the added advantage of potentially reaching your entire workforce. For example, you can establish a writing skills resource on your company's Website, or subscribe to an outside service that provides writing guidance. In addition, you can send your employees regular reminders that proper writing is key to your company's success—and theirs.
A corporate imperative
With so much at stake, employers need to face the reality that many of their employees are poorly prepared to meet the responsibilities of everyday business writing. Remedial training can be costly, but the alternative is to risk losing critical opportunities in an already challenging economic environment.
Bill Kozel is president of
Dr. GoodWrite, an online subscription service that aims to help improve employee writing skills.