You Are What You Write

Julie Shenkman
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A recent survey of human resource professionals found that over one-third have visited social networking sites to look for information about employment candidates. Personal pages and videos posted on,, and similar sites are now fair game when employers conduct “background checks” on job applicants. With concerns about office security, employee theft, and malicious behavior on the rise, they want to learn as much as they can about the character of a person as well as their capabilities on-the-job.

This assessment, however, is not limited to what can be found on social networking sites. It also encompasses virtually every interaction you have with an organization online. To put it another way, your evaluation now begins with the first e-mail message you send and continues through every subsequent communication you have with the organization. From an employer’s perspective, then, you are what you write.

That view has always been true, of course. Employers have long made judgments about job applicants by evaluating their resume. On the Internet, however, it’s far easier to get trapped into careless and potentially damaging expository mistakes. What follows are three simple rules to help make sure that what you write is you at your best.

Rule #1: Be Business-Like in Employment-Related E-Mail Always assume that any online correspondence you have with any representative of an employer is of a business nature. E-mail may have developed as a casual medium, but when you’re seeking employment, it’s a serious activity and should be treated as such.

•If you are initiating the correspondence, err on the side of formality and begin your message with a standard business greeting and the recipient’s last name. For example, you might write “Dear Mr. Brown.”

• If you are replying to a message from a recruiter, follow their lead in determining what greeting to use. For example, if they begin their message with an informal “Hi Joseph” or “Hello Joseph,” you may do so, as well. If they begin with the more formal “Dear Joseph” or “Dear Mr. Brown,” then you should reply using the more formal greeting.

• You should also follow the recruiter’s lead in determining whether to use their first or last name in your greeting. If they signed off in their message with their first name, then you may use that name in your greeting. If, on the other hand, they signed off in their message with their full name or some variation of their last name (e.g., Mr. Jones, Ms. Kay), then you should use their last name in your greeting.

Rule #2: Watch Your Tone of Voice The tone of an online communication can be easily misunderstood. In fact, one study found that as many as 50% of all e-mail messages convey an unintended (and potentially harmful) tone. How does that happen?

• A frequent source of misunderstanding is the simple choice of which case you will use in typing your message. Just as it’s impolite to shout in a conversation, it’s impolite to do the same online by over-using the upper case or capital letters in your e-mail.

• Tone is also conveyed, although more subtly, by your word choice and syntax. Make sure you select terms and phrases that can’t be read more than one way and avoid those that could be misunderstood without some familiarity with your mannerisms and way of speaking.

• Stay away from ambiguity. More often than not, clarity declines with the length and complexity of your sentences. So, keep it short and precise.

Rule #3: Represent Yourself Well in Your Writing Carefully compose every message and then even more carefully proofread what you’ve written.

• Recruiters are most impressed with candidate e-mails that are articulate and to-the-point. Multi-syllable words and complex thoughts don’t influence them as much as the clearly expressed answer to a question or explanation of a point.

• Recruiters are put off by messages that have improper or non-standard punctuation, grammatical errors, and misspellings. They believe that such miscues reflect inattention to detail and a lack of pride in one’s work. If those attributes are evident in something as important as your employment-related communications, they are also likely to occur on-the-job, and that possibility undercuts your credibility as a candidate.

No one believes that a resume fully conveys all of a person’s potential value to an employer. It is, however, the key to the front door. If the resume doesn’t open the door and get you invited in for an interview, you’ll never have a chance to embellish on what you’ve written.

The same is true with your online communications. Even the briefest and seemingly insignificant e-mail between you and a recruiter becomes a part of your record. The messages you write online, however, may have an even greater impact on your evaluation by the recruiter. They are less stylized than your resume—a more candid snapshot of who you are—and thus are often considered a more reliable gauge of how you will act once employed.

Does that make them more important than your resume? Of course not. Your resume tells a recruiter what you can do. Your online messages, however, tell them who you are. And, in today’s world of work, that information can spell the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter.


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