…When people make linguistic errors, you rapidly interpret that as someone with a lower educational level. However, that isn’t necessarily true. In addition, our focus was primarily on how certain words were being used. For example: if someone says “my values are in alignment with the organizational culture”, that just sounds like a higher educated person.

Quote by one of my students

In this blog I want to share my experience and the insights I have gained during the experimental session I have held with a group of students. First, the aim of the session was to test my findings that there is an (un)conscious link with how intelligent someone is perceived to be, in relation to linguistic errors they make, and that this link has an influence on the recruitment process. This is because linguistic errors can be perceived by recruiters as a candidate not being suitable for the job.  Second, I wanted to observe if my assumptions that (1) students are not being educated to become aware of this (un)conscious link and that (2) they do not know what role language plays within organization, are true. Thus, re-enforcing my belief that if they are not made aware of this, they cannot recognize nor change the role that language has within organizations.  

For those who are not familiar with me or my research topic, or in case you might have forgotten… here is a short recap:   I am – to name a few, but not limited to – a black woman with Caribbean roots, an immigrant living and working in the Netherlands, speaker of five languages, a (HR) professional, a lecturer & researcher. Since living in the Netherlands, I have experienced some difficulties while looking for a job that left me wondering if I was not good enough. To my surprise, others with equal characteristics as I also faced similar difficulties. When I started to zoom out even more, I realized that it was a nationwide problem. An example of one of the many articles and researches I’ve encountered is a research conducted by Thijssen, Coenders & Lancee (2019) of the University of Amsterdam. It shows that a Dutch Caribbean person must send almost seven application letters before receiving a positive reaction in comparison to a Dutch applicant who receives a positive reaction after the second application letter (see figure 1). Taking away from the truly little hope I had, the research added an import note: “the research was conducted between 2016-2018, a time where the Netherlands was doing economically well and had a high employment rate. In case of a bad economic situation, the differences between the groups may be even greater.”

Figure 1

Starting with my personal experience, the stories of those that I know, followed by the societal impact of this matter and as an HR professional, I thought that this is something I want to research and do something about. To me – and backed up by different researches[1] – there is a link between how intelligent and/or capable someone is perceived to be and their use of language. So, language does play a role in the application process. I am not going to do yet another research to show that this is a problem. I am more interested in the question of what I can do and how I can impact the future recruiters/ future professionals in regards to this challenge. So, my focus is within education since that is the environment in which future professionals are being molded.  

After speaking to many recruiters, I realized that the majority was unaware or ignorant as to how language impacts the recruitment process. Needless to say, to have a conversation about how they look past their biases to recruit the best candidate was a bit too far-fetched. Why? Because I believe that if we are unaware or blinded by our biases, it is impossible to recognize how these biases influences and impact our world, our lives, our decisions – and in this case, the recruitment process. Thus, our behavior does not have to change for something that is unrecognizable and holds no meaning to us. This also led me to the realization that the recruiters I was speaking to, are a product of an educational system that I am now part of. They were not always (or explicitly) taught how to be aware of their role in the recruitment process and that the applicant is not always to blame. At times, their own paradigm and biases lead to mechanisms of exclusion (Lumby, 2009). I cannot blame (only) them – recruiters – for their unawareness and way of doing things. How they see the world and how they act – especially as professionals, has been shaped by the education they have received. How good of a student they were depended on how high their grades were. In general, a grade is highly impacted by the amount of linguistic errors (both mechanical and rule-based). So, if you can write flawlessly, the higher your grade. The higher your grade, the more you are perceived to be an intelligent student. No wonder that they now, as recruiters, focus and associate linguistic errors with how suitable the applicant is. This realization solidified where I needed to start! In my own backyard, my university, my faculty, my program… with my students. As I mentioned before, only if made aware of ones biases, can you recognize, give meaning to what is seen and change your behavior accordingly.  

On to the experimental session 

I held a session with a group of students who were part of an extra-curricular course. The group consisted of only Dutch students which is a quite interesting and exciting group for me as a researcher. I could check if they as Dutch born and raised and whose first language is Dutch, are able to look past linguistic errors in the application letter. If this is the case, try and find out how come some people are able to and others are not.  

For the session I had the students go through a recruitment process where they must select the candidate that they feel most suited for the job. They started individually with the first exercise and then I divided them into small groups to complete the second part of the exercise. To gain unbiased insights, it was important not to tell the students what my research is about because they are good at giving desired answers. For that reason, I did not give any information with regards to my research question.  

Exercise 1: According to research, we unconsciously link the use of language and intelligence and this link was the first thing that I wanted to check. Since it would be tricky to ask the students to guess someone’s IQ based on an application letter, I asked them to individually guess the applicant’s level of education based on the letter (ranging from no education to university). By doing it individually I could get a sense of how they each think and what they look at. After 5 seconds I noticed their strict faces, reading puzzled. After 10 seconds it started: circling words, striking through, correcting the grammar… although that was not the assignment. All they had to do was read the letter and guess the level of education. Once they were done, we had a discussion where it became apparent that they indeed link what they read with having a certain level of education. Letters with more “formal” words were considered to have a university degree, whereas letters that were – in their opinion – less formal were considered people with no education or with vocational education. To give an impression on some of the remarks of the applicants who were labeled as less educated:  

  • You should write “dear Sir/Madam” and not “dear reader”; 
  • When using the word however [echter], there is always a comma following the word. Candidate X did not use a comma;  
  • However [echter] is only used to show a contradiction  
  • The sentence does not really flow and is a bit weird. 

The candidate classified as a bachelor professional used a letter structure like what the students learned during their study on the ideal design of an application letter. At no point did someone consider that the comma was forgotten because humans make mistakes or that the sentence was weird because Dutch is not the candidate’s native language. Nor did they consider that the candidate did not write according to the universities script because we each have a different writing style.  

Exercise 2:The students had to choose one candidate they would invite to an interview for a job vacancy given to them. Starting with a clean sleight, the students were informed that they should consider the requirements in the vacancy text (such as team player, ability to communicate, and so on) and assume that all the candidates had the same educational level and years of experience. The intention then should be to see who refers to specific requirements. If you are looking for a team player, which candidate mentions something that would tick that box – or at least give that impression. As the students were deliberating in their smaller groups I was walking around and listening to their conversations. Again, the conversation was around the linguistic errors. And then something happened… I have observed and heard something that reinforced why the change that I want to see happen is important. I saw this Dutch student quiet, emotionally invested, puzzled, so I asked him what was wrong. He said that he was just wondering:

HOW CAN SOMEONE NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THE WORD ECHTER [HOWEVER]?”

He was not able to look beyond the incorrect use of a word – which may I add, would not impact the performance of the job function they were hiring for. And as suspected, those with letters containing the least linguistic errors were invited for an interview by the majority.  

It confirmed my suspicion that it is hard to look beyond grammar or even to consider that there may be other factors impacting someone’s writing, for example: language barrier when Dutch is not your native language. In addition, the candidate who gave clear examples on how he/she was a team player was overlooked because the letter was not formal enough.  

To conclude the session, I introduced my research topic. As I was sharing, I could see some face expressions change to what I have interpreted as “oh sh*t, I didn’t think about that” and “yes but, it wasn’t my intention to overlook someone.” – this was later confirmed by the students that it was indeed what they were thinking. That sense of awareness is what I was aiming for. I know not every student is aware of this bias, but their behavior reflect the educational system. Students are taught that when writing, one specific structure in the letter, essay or report is acceptable. Also, the number of linguistic errors is always an assessment criterion, so their grade is also dependent on their ability to write faultlessly. The feedback they receive, heavily revolve around their ability to prevent linguistic errors. And… the better you are at this, the more you are perceived as intelligent – backed up by your grade. So, no wonder their first instinct was to look at the structure of the application letter and to start marking the mistakes. However, I also know that this can be changed by changing how we educate our students. By no means do I think that language is not important and that we should not teach them about structure and the importance of skillful writing. I do think that we should be more aware of the role that language has within our educational system and organizations, and where we should question the language norm and reassess the influence we allow it to have. 

As we were finalizing, one student said that she will start a recruiting job and that she never thought about how she must recruit nor was aware of her biases. The session helped her be more mindful while recruiting and aware of the lenses she is looking through. While hearing her, I could not help but find some glimmer of hope on this matter. Hopefully, future professionals can look further then linguistic errors and give skilled applicants a chance.  

Many companies have overlooked me because of my linguistic errors, but just like I said in the beginning: I am many things. I am someone unable to write nor speak perfect Dutch, I am creative, I am caring, I am a critical thinker, I am eager to learn, I am more than my linguistic capabilities…  

This was a low-threshold experiment to test if students overlook relevant facts in the process because of the influence that language has within our education system (and beyond). Since the session has proven that it is the case, I have valid reason to dive deeper into the subject and figure out how I can make a change within the educational system by creating awareness amongst the students, and teaching them how to change systems and processes.

Zunaica Phillips

Bibliography 

Figueredo L., Varnhagen C. K. (2005). Didn’t you run the spell checker? Effects of type of spelling error and use of a spell checker on perceptions of the author. Reading Psychology, 26, 441–458. doi:10.1080/02702710500400495

Janssen D. M. L., Jansen F. (2016). Fatale spelfouten?: Een experimenteel onderzoek naar de manier waarop spelfouten in sollicitatie- en sponsorbrieven de besluitvorming beïnvloeden [Fatal spelling errors? An experimental study into the way in which spelling errors in application and sponsorship letters affect decision making]. Tijdschrift voor Taalbeheersing, 38, 81–106. doi:10.5117/TVT2016.1.JANS

Kloet L., Renkema J., van Wijk C. (2003). Waarom foutloos schrijven? Het effect van taalfouten op tekstwaardering, imago en overtuigingskracht [Why write faultlessly? The effect of language errors on text appreciation, image and persuasiveness]. In van Waes L., Cuvelier P., Jacobs G., de Ridder I. (Eds.), Studies in taalbeheersing (pp. 270–279). Assen, Nederland: Koninklijke Van Gorcum BV.

Kreiner D. S., Schnakenberg S. D., Green A. G., Costello M. J. & McClin A. F. (2002). Effects of spelling errors on the perception of writers. The Journal of General Psychology, 129, 5–17. doi:10.1080/00221300209602029

Lumby J. (2009) Performativity and identity: mechanisms of exclusion, Journal of Education Policy, 24:3, 353-369, DOI: 10.1080/02680930802669284

Schmidt, F.L (2012) cognitive tests used in selection can have content validity as well as criterion validity: a broader research review and implications for practice. International journal of selection and assessment.

Thijssen L., Coenders M. & Lancee B. (2019): ‘Etnische discriminatie op de Nederlandse arbeidsmarkt. Verschillen tussen etnische groepen end de rol van beschikbare informatie over sollicitanten’, in: Mens en Maatschappij. DOI: 10.5117/MEM2019.2.002.THIJ

Van der Zanden, T., Schouten, A. P., Mos, M. B. J., & Krahmer, E. J. (2019). Impression formation on online dating sites: Effects of language errors in profile texts on perceptions of profile owners’ attractiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(3), 758-778.


[1] To name a few: (Figuerdo & Varnhagen, 2005; Janssen & Jansen, 2016; Kloet et al., 2003; Kreiner et al., 2002; Schmidt, 2012; Zanden et al., 2019)

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