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You Are What Your Dashes Say You Are

Everyone makes mistakes—but some are unacceptable.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

I’ve talked about this before. I mention it frequently in casual conversation. I occasionally bring it up when interviewing job candidates at the Fortune 100 firm where I am an executive. And when I do, it goes like this:

Me: You’re a very impressive candidate, but you did have one little typo on your resume.

Candidate: Where, oh no, I checked it and checked it.

Me: Here, this dash, between the dates for 2002 and 2005 when you were a quality inspector at Sumo Candy Corp., it’s a different size than the other ones.

Candidate: Oh no, I’m so sorry! [Cocks head, not sure if I’m insane or not.]

Me: It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s just me. I just notice this kind of thing.

But you know what? It’s time for me to stop being coy about this. It’s not just me. It’s not OK that you didn’t know or don’t notice. Get your damned dashes in order, people. They represent who you are.

Here’s the deal: Microsoft Word thinks you know or care about typography more than you do. You type two dashes and with no initial space and Word turns that into an m-dash. Like—this. It’s the width of the letter M. You type two dashes and a space before and you get an n-dash. Like – this. It’s the width of the letter N. The former is used as a punctuation symbol in a sentence and the latter is used in lieu of the word to between dates or numbers to indicate a range. Wow, that sounds pedantic. And it is. And you should care.

Every day we all experience minor annoyances caused by others’ minor carelessness. A manufacturing glitch means the knob comes off a car radio in our hand. A distracted spouse fills the coffee cup too high, and it spills as you walk to work. A door gets stuck in its jamb every time the humidity goes above 40 percent, because it wasn’t fit properly in the first place.

I think about it this way. No job is too small to do badly. When you leave mistakes in your resume that are as (arguably) obvious as incorrect punctuation, you are telling me that you’re not going to spot the small things. That when you do work for me, I’m going to have to check it—every time. That I’ll never be able to forward your work to others without worrying that something is out of whack.

A friend of mine recently sent a report produced by his team to the senior management of his company. Only after it was delivered did he notice that they had double counted some items in a spreadsheet. What should have been 28 was listed as 34. He called me in a panic, believing his job was on the line over a difference of 6 in one number. But his employees thought he was overreacting. The total size of the report was 50 pages. Who would notice this one number? That’s not the point, he said, what if they do notice? Worse, what if they rely on this and then months down the road they find out the report was wrong? The reactions of his team gave my friend more than a little pause. His trust in them was undoubtedly compromised.

Still think I’m nitpicking? Have you heard the story of the Russian spacecraft that flipped over, took a nose dive toward earth, and burned up in the atmosphere? It was caused by one erroneous line of computer code.

You might not be planning missions to space or testifying in front of Congress, but whatever it is you do, sloppy is never OK. Not on your resume, not in your spreadsheet, and not in your ratchet tightening. It may not cause rockets or empires to fall, but it can brand you for a long, long time.

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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