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When Writing Is Cruel

Today at a business lunch I heard a tale of bad manners in business writing. Here’s the story:

A job candidate, who had been searching for a position for quite a while, had four interviews with a prestigious Seattle firm. Naturally, he was getting excited. And he should be: his fourth interview was with a senior executive.

Then he got a message from the company–a written message saying he didn’t get the job.

You might wonder–what’s wrong with that? We can’t each be the chosen one when it comes to a position. But that’s not the whole story. The letter he received was canned: an impersonal, lazy rejection letter, the kind that’s sent to any faceless applicant.

Here’s why that letter was cruel: A job applicant who has endured four interviews with the same firm, dressed meticulously in four different suits, prepared carefully for several conversation-cross examinations, graciously met a variety of strangers–this applicant deserved a thoughtful personal letter or phone call.

The consultant who told me this story discreetly avoided naming the company. But I am guessing that the word will spread about how the prestigious firm treated the candidate. People who hear the story will retell it at business meetings and lunches, and those in job searches may avoid that company if they can.

A lot of negative information may spread about the firm, and it could lead to a slight dulling of that shiny prestige–all because someone didn’t take the time to write a letter or make a phone call to treat a candidate with care and dignity.

Let’s never underestimate the power of our actions to create or destroy good will.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.