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The company my other half works for has recently employed a new admin assistant, but she is constantly making basic spelling and grammar mistakes.

A few examples would be which/witch, your/you're, there/they're/their. There are also a few basic words which the spell checker can't even suggest the right word for.

What should be done under this circumstance? They don't really want to fire her because she works hard.

The only thing I could think of was to bring it up in a review and ask her how she thinks it should be dealt with. Then steer her towards suggesting she studies the common ones online in her own time.

I have also suggested a basic test to prevent this from happening again for the next people they hire.

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I don't understand why bother as long as the meaning is clear and she does her job well? – ren Jan 22 at 14:19
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wait, who uses the word 'witch' at work? – DrewJordan Jan 22 at 15:05
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@DrewJordan JK Rowling for one... – Brian Drummond Jan 22 at 15:27
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could dyslexia play a role? – C_B Jan 22 at 16:01
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@ren Because it looks unprofessional for anyone who sees it. – Tim B Jan 22 at 17:20

11 Answers 11

So you've got a serial misspeller in the office. What you can or should do about it depends on who the culprit is and your relation to them.


Your manager

Not your job. Correct him in the moment if it could cause issues externally but otherwise assume that his manager is handling it or doesn't consider it a problem.

I’d say you shouldn’t say anything. Presumably he also does this around his manager, and it’s that person’s job to address it. For your own sake, I’d skip creating the awkwardness that could result if you tackle this yourself.

Source: should I correct my boss’s awful grammar?, Alison Green, AskAManager


Your coworker

It depends on how long you've been at the company, how new the coworker is and how long the problem has been going on. If you're new to the team, don't mention it as it just won't look good even if you mean it well.

Otherwise, you could offer to help out or bring it up if you've got a good relationship with the coworker and can do so tactfully. But really, this is also not your problem: it's up to your coworker's manager to control the quality of her work.

Bring it up with your manager if it's affecting clients, external communications or your work. Otherwise, assume that your manager will address it in time or doesn't care.

It’s not really your place to speak up about it. As you point out, his manager sees the same things you do, and it’s up to her to address it. If she’s not doing it, then it tells you something about what her standards are, which tells you something what kind of manager she is... which actually points to the bigger problem being with her than with him.

Of course, it’s also possible that she is addressing it with him. That’s not something you’d typically know about, since managers don’t generally broadcast to the rest of the staff when they’re having serious conversations with someone and issuing warnings. Once the behavior has gone on for a certain amount of time with no change, it’s safer to assume that nothing is being done — but even then, different workplaces take different lengths of time in addressing these things.

Source: should I speak up about my coworker’s lack of professionalism?, Alison Green, AskAManager

Whatever you do, don't be this person and start whistle-blowing individual mistakes to management.


Someone you manage

If there's a pattern of spelling errors then it's worth addressing. Addressing each individual instance won't solve the underlying problem.

This is the step that managers often miss when they have concerns about someone’s work — they continue addressing each instance of the problem, and they get increasingly frustrated and concerned about the pattern, but they don’t sit down with the person and say, “Hey, we have a pattern here.” They assume the person sees the pattern as clearly as they do, but they never spell it out. But you need to spell it out, because your employee may not see it as a pattern or realize that it’s risen to the level of a serious concern.

Source: my employees are making mistakes, but I don’t want to micromanage, Alison Green, AskAManager

How much effort you and the employee should make towards proper spelling and grammar depends on whether her mistakes are visible externally which could mean to clients, the public or other departments. If the mistakes are affecting his work, you should treat it as any other performance problem.

In most cases this is simply the result of lazy writing or a poor grasp of grammar and spelling. Both causes are fairly easily remedied if your support your employee and give her enough time and resources to improve.

And I’d also like to see you be more vigilant about using correct grammar, in order to present a more professional image to the people we work with. You have lots of potential here, but this is something we need to work on fixing because it’s something that could keep you from accomplishing all you otherwise could.”

Sending her to a business writing class could help things.

I don’t think you need to worry about this being snooty unless you’re secretly feeling snooty about it (in which case it may come across). Instead, you should see this as feedback like any other, and simply be straightforward and direct in giving it.

Source: helping an employee with bad communication skills, Alison Green, AskAManager

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 22 at 11:58

I am going to answer this from the other side a bit. I have a horrid time spelling correctly. It's just not something that my brain can grasp. That being said, I always stay away from jobs that require me to be the last line of spelling defense. Here are some tips.

Be polite, but clear.

They may not even know they are doing it. 9/10 times I won't catch it unless the little red squiggle shows up. Make sure you can give examples, but try to keep them light hearted.

Work on the global problem, not the instance

It doesn't help one bit to be reminded of every incorrect spelling issue in a document, for every document, ever. It's annoying, and is more like to be bullying then supporting. In some cases it is harassment. Your goal is to assist them in understanding that there is a problem, not to rub their faces in it.

Find the problem

For me, my brain is very logical. English is not logical. This disconnect makes spelling a nightmare. For others, it could be other issues.

Propose Solutions and Resources

Okay you can't spell, here try using this spell checker, or try typing into this program then correcting it then sticking it into word. Try printing it out and reading it back. There are some solutions that will work for some people and not others. You will need to work with them to find a solution that works well for them. The single biggest help though is to give them less work load while they are trying to figure it out. All solutions take time and training to get into the habit of using. That means they are going to go slower (which you want anyway).

Explain why it's important

You may be surprised how many people today don't understand why formal English, or proper spelling, or what ever, is important. You can't expect someone to take the extra time to do something right, when they don't even know why the right way is right. So many people are used to l33t sp34k and :9 >0 ;P and "i h8 wn u go 2 tht stor" that they don't get why it's important to not use those in a normal conversation.

Over all be patient, try to explain and be supportive. The next person isn't going to be any better. It's a culture problem and not a single person problem.

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+1 for your "Explain why it's important" paragraph. Especially given the comments from the OP that the offender is young and makes the same mistakes repeatedly, I would guess that your theory the offender doesn't find proper grammar or spelling important is spot on. – thunderblaster Jan 21 at 21:10
    
The explain why it's important bit seems good. Could you elaborate on how pointing out individual spelling mistakes could be a problem? Obviously you don't want to do it with a bunch of attitude, but other than that it would seem more helpful than harmful. Maybe with "reminded" you meant referring back to it again and again? – DCShannon Jan 22 at 3:44
    
If a person has a legitimate problem with spelling, and not just laziness, your effectively pointing out a personal defect. Where it's ok is on a larger scale. "You'r spelling needs to improve, specially when your sending stuff to clients, here are some examples." When it's not ok is when you point out all 642 words spelled wrong in that email every single time. Mostly it's about approach. A conversation is better then an annotated document. Same with anything else. A poor welder is helped by "You need to improve your welding", Not by "this one is wrong, this one is wrong, this one is wrong." – coteyr Jan 22 at 7:31
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I can't count the number of times I have been told by younger people that grammar, spelling, and punctuation are unimportant. I have explained almost that many times that those attributes help to make the message unambiguous. If you spend the time to create the message, you want the message to be understood by the audience, and bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation can change the message meaning or make it ambiguous. As a speed reader, I know it also makes it more difficult to read since it breaks the flow, and I must stop to process. If it is too difficult to read, I won't bother. – Ron Maupin Jan 23 at 3:41
    
@RonMaupin to a certain degree it true it creates ambiguity. But language is very imprecise even at best of times so the message is corrupted anyway. By same token i could say that choice of font and layout is important; If you cant bother choosing a suitable font i wont bother. Same goes if you cant bother to draw pictures or typeset you mathematical formulas etc... So where do we draw lines. In practice I am tolerant for typos, my brain can handle uncertainty. But I cant stand badly done illustrations. – joojaa Jan 23 at 22:19

That mistake isn't as small as you portray it to be. For, non-native speakers, it is a very big deal.

For example, even I used to struggle (and still struggle) with trivial mistakes. However, people in this community have been very helpful in correcting me multiple times, which really helped me and made me learn from my mistakes.

So, here are some things you can do:

  1. Correct her initially. Yeah, you need to do it a lot of times, but it'd help her a lot.
  2. If you don't have time to correct her, introduce her to spell and grammar check tools like Grammarly (I'm using one while writing this answer). Trust me, non-native speakers don't always know that such neat tools exist, and they feel that their English is good enough, unless someone points out to them. So, be that guy.
  3. I would copy your suggestion from the question here:

I could think of was to bring it up in a review and ask her how she thinks it should be dealt with. Then steer her towards suggesting she studies the common ones online in her own time.

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The huge problem is that it's extremely infectious, especially when you spend most of your reading on people who do this wrong. I'm a non-native speaker, and I had no problems with english spelling until I started seeing the mistakes everywhere. In fact, I've seen many more native speakers struggling with this than non-native - if your mother tongue makes enough of a distinction, you're got a serious bonus. Of course, it swings both ways - a Japanese guy might have trouble distinguishing "love" and "rub", something that seems just silly to a native speaker. – Luaan Jan 22 at 14:34

Sign her up for a spelling class.

Your company should make continuous education & employee development a priority. Nobody is perfect and everyone can get better.

This is clearly the case here - you have a hard working employee who can use some help.

The company I work for has spelling / grammar classes regularly and virtually everyone here ( 80% or so) has at least a bachelor degree.

Even if the company is small and can't afford having internal education, they can still pay for a community college class or even a MOOC. There are also many corporate training providers who would offer one or two day long classes on variety of topics.

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This person is an adult with at least a high school education? If so (and if those were requirements for getting the job in the first place) then it should never have come to this. The person isn't qualified. But unless the situation is intolerable there's no sense in firing her for someone else's mistake, since you could argue that the bigger problem is with the person who hired her. Communication is the most important — and, probably, most difficult — skill in the workplace. The supervisor of this person needs to sit down with her, find out what the problem is (lack of education? learning disability? laziness/sloppiness?) and then work with her to correct it. Unless you're an artist or a software engineer who works alone most of the time (not in the office with other people — certainly not with the public), this is a real problem that needs to be nipped in the bud.

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I don't know the hiring/firing regulations in your area, but these mistakes need to be documented and tracked. The level of errors needs to be addressed to the assistant and documented that she understands there is a problem.

Consider different training, usage of tools (Spell Czech, you never know, some people ignore it.) or just taking the time to proof and take pride in the quality of her work.

Establish a time frame and level of improvement along with the consequences of not being able/willing to comply. Make sure you document these goals, objectives and consequences and have them ready for the next review.

It seems like a lot, but if this is a problem, the time to handle it needs to be allotted. Many people can be up to the task if they really want to keep their job. Firing and replacing will take a lot of time and you lose all the work that this person is capable of doing. If they can't do anything right, then replace immediately.

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I intentionally used "Czech" instead of check for a little humor. – JeffO Jan 26 at 21:24
    
Eye awl weighs like two ewes it to. Helps mi sea my miss steaks. – Laconic Droid Jan 26 at 22:01

You have two basic options: cut your losses now, or decide the spelling mistakes are worth putting up with on an ongoing basis.

It is way, way too late to "train" somebody to become a good speller. You learn that stuff when you are 13-years-old. I see 40-year-old "programmers" where I work typing with two fingers. There are certain things best learned when young and it is a mistake to try to teach an old dog new tricks. Feel free to waste your time and money trying to do that and proving it to yourself.

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@JoeStrazzere Nope, its like trying to teach a 35-year-old better table manners. Sounds like it should be easy, but trust me, it will not happen. If that dude holds his spoon in his fist, nothing is going to change it. – Socrates Jan 21 at 17:19
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@JoeStrazzere - depends on what you mean by "can learn". Are you including the motivation in that? They can learn in the sense that their brain can absorb the information if they tried. But someone who didn't care to learn how to write properly so far in their life, isn't going to start caring now. – Davor Jan 21 at 18:46
    
Davor has the right idea, it's not so much a "can", as a "will". Sure, you if you a gun to somebody's head in a prison and tell them to learn to spell better, you might see some improvement, but that is not an option for civilians. – Socrates Jan 21 at 18:56
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If she was 35 I would probably agree with you, but in this case she's only 17. It's possible if she sees the benefit. – Level River St Jan 21 at 21:13
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Your statement that it is not possible to train someone older to become a better speller is not supported by research. Also, on a personal note: Your statement about two-finger-typing programmers is ridiculously. As professional programmers are estimated to write maybe 100 to 200 lines of code per day it is easy to do this with two fingers (as I do as a professional software engineer every day) - If the bottleneck of programming is your typing speed, you are doing it wrong. The bottleneck should be your brain. – dirkk Jan 21 at 21:48

Context matters. What is her role and where are the errors she is making? Are these errors in customer-facing communications or official documents or in casual communication such as email to staff?

If the errors are occurring in "important" documents, consider changing your document prep process to include an editorial checklist which explicitly requires grammar and spelling checks and apply this to everyone, top to bottom. I work in nuclear safety and such checklists are a way of life; they initially seem like a pain in the ass but they really do improve the consistency & quality of the end product. This may be overkill in your work culture, but it is an effective option.

However, if the errors are in casual email to staff, this may be just an annoyance. If her performance is otherwise stellar, it may not be be worth worrying about. Again, context and expectations matter.

If you want to retain her, don't wait for the annual review to let her know there's a problem. Most people want to do a good job and will make an honest effort to improve once they understand there's a problem. You owe it to her to not stay silent, letting her believe everything is fine only to bring this up after six months during a performance review. Most people would take that as being set up to fail. It's a great way to breed resentment and crush morale and it's completely avoidable.

In this case, poor grammar is unlikely to be intentional or due to laziness; treat it as a mentoring issue, not a disciplinary one. All the more reason to handle it sooner than later, and in a way that makes it clear that you want her to succeed. If she likes her job, works hard, and otherwise gets along with people and does her job well, you'll eventually want to promote her. Ask her what approaches she thinks would help her most effectively and try a few.

And despite considering this a problem to be solved, try to keep the tone positive. If you can turn it into a running joke instead of constant criticism, you might keep her engaged & vigilant. It's unlikely this will be fixed overnight so keeping everyone's morale up keeps the focus on this as an honest improvement process rather than relentless soul-crushing pettiness.

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Anyone sending copy to customers (and even more so for wide distribution such as adverts) needs to be able to create correct copy as part of their job. So there's a few problems here:

  1. The hiring process messed up and hired someone not entirely qualified for the role. This may be a named condition such as dyslexia, or it may not, but even if it is there's still the problem that it wasn't identified so that proper accommodations could be made for it. You've already pointed this out, and to me it's pretty clear that people who have to write forms for customers as part of their job, should always be tested during recruitment for writing and copy-editing (that is, spotting and correcting errors). Provided she never lied this can't be blamed on her: if you yourselves didn't notice that the literacy/accuracy requirements for the job were higher than where she's at, then she's not going to.

  2. The copy-writing process may be messed up. No matter how good her spelling is, if a form really matters then the form should be proof-read by someone other than its author. Therefore, her bad spelling should not be an emergency even if it's throwing up more errors at copy-editing time than you'd normally expect. If it is an emergency then consider whether your organisation really needs to be so dependent on people avoiding typos and other errors, or whether you could do a better job of defending against errors.

  3. Finally, an employee is under-performing at a particular area of her job. The fact it happens to be spelling doesn't change the basic approach, which (given you don't want to just fire her) is to identify the nature and magnitude of the problem, discuss it with her, arrange appropriate training, measure for improvement, and ultimately if she simply isn't capable of the job required then fire her. However, the fact it happens to be spelling does mean the specific issue of dyslexia is a possibility, and this is something that either she or you could arrange tests for if either of you considers it at all likely.

Specific training indicated for her by the company should generally be done on company time, but ultimately it depends how much the company wants to contribute towards solving the problem. I'd say that if you don't want to sack her then you shouldn't want to make it her problem to fix the issue alone, but your mileage may vary.

Training should also be based on some kind of expert opinion in the area being trained. My instinct is that simply looking at lists of common errors is unlikely to result in much improvement (because it's never that easy), and that some kind of structured tuition will be needed. Find someone you trust either to teach her directly or to recommend worthwhile sources of tutorials and exercises. A teacher in the area of literacy and copy-writing would also have experience of dyslexia and hopefully be more able to indicate whether it should be tested for.

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Let's say you've decided to do something about the employee and find out she has dyslexia. Is that a reason to backoff and live with it?

No.

I'm dyslexic myself. Ignoring the problem when it's been diagnosed is actually unfair to the employee and lazy management. We all have problems. If a doctor has a fancy name for your problem it doesn't stop it being a problem. The fancy name is supposed to help everyone understand the problem and point you to solutions. I use hard won compensation skills (and a healthy distrust of spell checker suggestions). I read and reread everything I post.

Say you're a track and field coach. Two guys try out by running a 50 meter dash. One has perfect form. The other one is sloppy. At the finish line they tie. Who should make the team?

The sloppy one. Because if you correct his form he beats the other guy.

The issue here is that you don't know the employee's history with the problem. If they were diagnosed young, treated, and are already pushing the limits of how they can compensate then she's already done what she can and she will always need someone to check her writing (near as I can tell that really goes for everyone on the planet).

But you don't know this. All you know is that she's a hard worker with a problem. If you're good manager you'll cultivate a relationship that will let you find out. Identify the problem. Point out that there are possible solutions. Ask her history with it. Has she taken classes specifically to address this? If not you have somewhere to start. Keep it light and positive.

Mentor her. This is something that could hold back her carrier. Sell her on the idea that dealing with this just one part of building a successful future here. Make it clear that her job isn't on the line if she doesn't improve but it could hurt her advancement.

It may be she's not aware of the problem and a mention is all that's needed. It may be with a few classes she can improve greatly. It may be she just needs to feel that it's OK to have someone look over her prose before it goes outside the office. She may just need a friend that understands because they're dealing with it too.

You also should let her know your expectations. It's fine to spend time polishing a widely distributed or customer facing message. But if she needs to send you an quick email because she took a phone message for you, do you want her anguishing about how to spell, "garbage", before she lets you know that the janitor will be out next week? What if that's time sensitive? Make sure she knows what you want.

An office is a collection of people bringing together their best skills and helping each other overcome their faults. If she's not bad enough to dismiss then it's your job to find a way to get the best out of her. I noticed your question required editing. Won't be surprised if my answer does as well. Aint none of us perfect.

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It is very simple: if you want to work in the US, you must be enough good in English on the opinion of your employer, and not on yours.

Not being enough good in a language wanted by the employer is a legal reason to deny somebodys application to hire, or to fire him.

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