Who is your typical reading audience when you're writing something and what level of language do you use?

Why Ask This Question?

The evolving lexicon of instant messaging (IM) has often been referred to as "E-illiteracy" and "IM-English" in the sense that the writers have created their own jargon that may save them time and prove they re cool but may also alienate the non-IM generation. In fact, rules of grammar and syntax have in many cases fallen by the wayside in a world where kids grow up reading "ty ttyl'' and understanding ''Thank you. Talk to you later.''

How much negative impact this Net lingo's lazy shorthand will have on the workplace is just now being seen, but it s certainly worth addressing in light of this younger generation s pride in expressing itself in its own unique way. Yes, to some it s just a creative twist on dialogue—a harmless version of teen slang. But to your workplace, new acronyms, abbreviations, run-on sentences, and emoticons (keyboard characters that resemble human gestures or expressions, like smiley faces) may leave some of your more mature workers feeling a bit isolated and unimpressed with this younger generation s grammatical shortcomings. Focusing your question on a so-called typical reading audience may help uncover applicants penchants for expressing themselves appropriately in the workplace.

Analyzing the Response

One fairly common response to this question may be, ''I live by IM and by e-mail, and I d typically address anyone within the company who needs my help or who could help me solve a problem. That s a fair enough response, but it's also logical to take it to another level: ''How would you define your overall writing style? And from the standpoint of traditional grammar, punctuation, and syntax, would you consider your writing abilities basic, intermediate, or advanced?

Now, this is where the fun begins. Truth be told, this is a valid question for any job candidate—not just for the millennials who may indeed suffer from bad writing habits. But in the context of generational analysis, it certainly lends itself well to the preemployment screening process.

''I feel my writing style is fairly informal but appropriate for a business audience, although English wasn't my favorite subject in school, and writing more than a few lines in an e-mail isn't typically necessary to get your point across.''

A logical follow-up query might be: ''Hmmm. Tell me about a longer and fairly complex document that you've had to put together recently. Who was your audience in that particular situation, and how did you tailor it to fit their needs?''

The candidate, a contract administrator, might respond like this:

''Well, we had gotten approval to award an executive under contract with a 6 percent annual contractual increase. The merit range for people under contract was 4 to 6 percent, so this was within guidelines and didn't raise any eyebrows.

''However, once I got it approved, the supervisor came back to me and asked that we increase the 6 percent annual merit increase to 10 percent, which was out of guidelines and would require a number of additional approvals.

''As a result, I created an e-mail string that first went to Corporate Compensation to ensure that, from an internal equity standpoint, we wouldn't be overpaying this executive relative to her peer group. With the written approval from our compensation group, I forwarded the e-mail to our corporate finance person to ensure that there was money in the budget for the expense variance, which I confirmed. I was then able to send that entire e-mail string to our COO, outlining again my case for the exceptional increase, along with Compensation's and Finance's approval. It was approved on the first shot because it had all the necessary blessings contained within the e-mail text string. The supervisor was very appreciative of my turning things around so quickly.''

And voila. The response demonstrates the individual's problem-solving abilities in addition to the audience he s capable of writing for—in this case, human resources, the finance department, and the company's COO.

Combined with what you saw when you reviewed the individual's resume and employment application, you probably have good reason to believe that even if this person grew up in and participates in the world of IM shorthand, he certainly can write for a corporate business audience.

However, what if this candidate had a different response: ''I don t write memos or narratives very often, but I do rely on text messaging to my co-workers to get information on new and existing accounts ? In that case, it s a fair comeback on your part to address appropriate business writing skills and expectations in your workplace. For example, ''Janet, when you write your coworkers using your company s IM system, do you write in what I would call 'Internet shorthand' or do you write in English?''

That should generate a chuckle. More important, it will get the candidate talking about when she feels that it is acceptable to use IM shorthand among workplace friends and peers and when that type of written communication might be inappropriate.

You might follow up with, ''Are there times when you feel it could make others feel uncomfortable to use shorthand terms when writing to a broader audience?'' or ''When do you feel that 'IM Speak' might even cast someone in a bad light from the standpoint of the individual not coming across as literate and well educated?

Your close might then be, ''I agree. I understand that, at times, IM shorthand and keyboard vernacular' may be appropriate in the workplace, but please understand our expectations that this would an exception to internal written communication rules. Of course, if you have agreement with a friend at work to communicate that way, we would understand that. More often than not, though, coworkers, especially older coworkers, may find that type of written communication offensive because if they can't understand it, they may feel isolated or simply not cool.' Are you comfortable with that level of sensitivity in your writings and internal communications?''

Again, your educational interviewing style will make for a powerful communication session because you'll not only be assessing the candidate's qualifications but also sharing your wisdom and insights into success in corporate America—advice and counsel that works in the best interests of the candidate and, ultimately, your company.

And because there's such demand for more information about millennials, please see the two following bonus questions to help you round out your evaluations of these candidates.

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