Sunday, April 21, 2019

Should typos rule out contractors?

A little more than 30 years ago, my son had just finished applying to colleges. In these pre-internet days, he had spent the summer sorting through the piles of college brochures he had received in the mail. Email wasn't generally around back then so he had to wait to receive any acceptances until the postal carrier delivered them to the house.

When Ed was shortening his list of prospective colleges to apply to, he had a variety of methods of deciding which ones fell off the list. Sometimes they didn't have a program he was interested in. Occasionally, they weren't in a part of the country he cared to spend four years. But one method he used was to eliminate any college whose brochures contained typographical errors.

I was reminded of Ed's sorting method after hearing from a reader who employed a similar mechanism toward ruling out which service providers he would use. The reader wonders if he's being fair to the providers by employing such a filter.

"The other day a flyer was taped to the fence in front of my house offering home improvement services," writes the reader we're calling Glen. "It featured 'spring services' including gutter repair, yard clean up, house painting, and a slew of other stuff." But Glen noticed that the flyer also mentioned "concete repair" and "preasure washing." Following his traditional typographical error filter method, Glen decided he'd pass on considering the local business.

"The typos don't really have anything to do with the quality of their work," writes Glen. "Have I been wrong all of these years not to consider using someone simply because they can't proofread?"

Just as Ed could use any filter he wanted to limit his choice of colleges, Glen can use any filter he wants. And just as Ed may have missed out on some fine college experiences at places with less-than-perfect brochures, Glen risks losing out on some fine workmanship from contractors who simply can't spell.

There's nothing unethical in deciding not to study somewhere or not to work with a particular service provider based on typographical errors. In some cases -- a resume service, a professional proofreading service -- it would seem smart to be rigorous about employing such a filter.

Colleges and businesses should take the time to make sure their marketing materials are professional looking and go the extra mile to make sure typos and other errors are avoided. With all of the options consumers (whether students or homeowners) have, every effort should be made by a college or a business to put the best foot forward.

The right thing for Ed was to choose the college where he thought he had the best chance to learn. As it turns out, he quite liked the college he chose. The right thing for Glen is to choose the best home improvement service provider he can find using whatever filters for choosing he can muster. I'd have gone with referrals from other customers rather than perfect flyer copy, but we all measure quality of work in different ways. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin


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