Recently, a colleague in marketing asked me to look over some copy he had written. He works for an oil company. I edited the copy, fixed some minor and, by my estimation, major mistakes and sent it back to him.

I like this fellow and decided to do something unusual. I picked up the phone and decided to talk to him about his writing.

(Before you drift off because you couldn't care less about writing, there IS an important management principle here.)

My friend studied geography in college. He got the marketing job because of a strong referral and his belief that he had a flair for writing. My guess is that someone once told him that he was a good writer and he believed it.

The problem is that he was moving up in the corporate world and was suddenly in an environment where writing ability really mattered. It didn't help that his immediate boss had a degree in English and was brittle in his editorial comments.

What was transpiring became clear. The needs of the job suddenly exceeded my friend's ability to write under the type of scrutiny he now faced. Yes, he could muddle along and probably NOT be fired. But he would always have that anxiety and feeling that, at least in this area, he was inadequate. Also, during a review, in the boss's mind, would linger the assessment that my friend's copy is constantly lacking.

It was clear to me that my friend lacked a solid mastery of English grammar and usage. Yes, he had the basics, and true, he had some modest flair for displaying his wordsmanship, but he made some fundamental errors in content, style and usage.

I told him that there was only one way to improve his writing. That was to go back to school (either literally or figuratively) and start at the beginning.

How many wholesalers have employees who are really good at their jobs but have that one element that makes you exasperated, irritated and sometimes so angry you want to fire them? I'm referring to the person who has to work with figures and always tells you that “I'm not a numbers person” or the salesperson who refuses to sit down for an hour and actually read and digest the manual for the new line your supplier is introducing. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these pockets of shortcomings. We all have them. How many of us could pass an impromptu quiz on cell reproduction? And we can generally live with these shortcomings in bliss UNLESS they affect our job performance.

Fair enough. By now you can suspect the answer that I'm suggesting. If you are an employer, you have to decide whether your employee's major weakness is worth ignoring because of the other talents he or she possesses. But if that skill is one of importance (or will become so), then it's time for that heart-to-heart conversation with the employee to see if he's willing to pay the price for filling in the sinkhole.

Something like this happened to me. An editor complained about my overuse of passive sentences. You know: The ball was hit by Tom (passive). Tom hit the ball (active). I judged the criticism to be accurate. I'm actually the Darth Vader of passive sentences, meaning that I excise them to, admittedly, almost a fault. But I was only able to improve by, first, being told about the problem and, second, doing something about it. In my case, I was determined to correct my flaw. I now take an extra minute or two and change all passive sentences to the active voice when editing copy. (There is only one passive sentence in this column, and it is in the example above.)

If your employee isn't self-aware of the problem, then it's your responsibility to point out the deficiency, if you decide not to ignore it. If the employee is willing, he or she can remedy the weakness through formal classwork, mentoring and tutoring. In the digital age, the range and variety of help is almost limitless. If the employee is unwilling — I just can't get it or I don't have time for it or I'm not going back to school — then you have a significant decision to make. You will either have to replace the employee or live with his or her incompetency. One approach that sometimes works is to shift the responsibility to someone who has the necessary skill in that special area.

I'm convinced that, when done correctly, people can go back and relearn what they should have learned in the past. I suggest the key is to remove guilt from the employee for lacking a piece of past knowledge and to infuse him or her with a renewed sense of how much more fulfilling the job will be after the skills upgrade.

Look at me. I take devilish delight in killing virtually every passive sentence that flashes across my computer.


HVACR Distribution Business welcomes letters to the editor. Please send correspondence to: Tom Periˊ, Editor 2040 Fairfax Avenue Cherry Hill, NJ 08003 856/874-0049 or e-mail tom.peric@penton.com.