March 29, 2023

A reader writes:

A few years ago, I was applying to a position (entry level, only about a year or so out of college) and I noticed a fairly obvious spelling error in the job posting. It has been a few years so the exact error escapes me now, but it was one that was very easy to miss (I only noticed because I was so nervous I had taken to reading the listing a bit obsessively before sending my application). Since the job was specifically calling for someone with solid editing skills, I mentioned it in my cover letter. Something like, “Just a heads-up, but I noticed that instead of xx it says zz on the website.” I ended up getting an interview and they mentioned that they had put it there as a test, something to see if people were paying attention.

Now, I think this is a slightly annoying practice, (not sure if you agree or not) but it has stuck in the back of my mind over the years. And now, if I am applying to a job and I notice an error on a post, I can’t stop myself from calling it out. Partially because I am paranoid that it could be a test, but also because I have been in a role where I have been responsible for that content posted on a website, and if I had accidentally left an obvious error out there, I would want to know!

Sometimes I get a thank-you, and occasionally I think that this does help my cover letter stand out. Even so, I brought this up to a recruiter friend, who told me that no matter how hard I tried to sound helpful and polite, I would inevitably come across as condescending and I was most likely hurting my chances.

So what are your thoughts? Am I making myself stand out in the “hey, look at her attention to detail” way? Or in the “dear god, wouldn’t she be the worst person to have on an email chain, I bet she would reply all when you used the wrong form of their, there, and they’re” kind of way?

I have yet to run into another person who has specifically mentioned that this is a “test,” though I have seen other listings that include similar things. (I’ve seen some “tests” that are innocuous, like asking your favorite candy bar or book or asking you to solve a simple math problem, but none that go so far as to expect you to notice a small spelling error.) I recently had an interview where the recruiter listed out a bunch of software and asked if I was familiar with any, and I had to admit that I hadn’t heard of a few of them, only for him to admit that he had made two of them up, just to see if I was lying about my experience. Am I alone in finding this annoying?

Gotchas are always annoying.

But they’re also pretty rare in hiring.

Very few employers will put intentional errors on their website just to see if candidates notice. For every candidate who notices and says something, there will be 10 more who notice and don’t say anything (because they worry about being seen as presumptuous or even rude, like your recruiter friend said), and others will think the lack of proofreading of a public posting reflects poorly on the employer.

Smart employers who want to assess candidates’ proofreading skills or attention to detail do that via exercises during the hiring process.

The same is true of that interviewer who asked you about fake software — that’s not a common thing. It’s also weirdly adversarial and will turn off good candidates. (“I wanted to see if you were lying about your experience” — what?)

In general, most employers aren’t laying traps for people. Of course, you can always find interviewers who are outliers — interviewers who do bizarre things like ask to look inside your purse or tell you to make dinner for 20 people or pretend there’s a fire to see how you’ll react — but most employers don’t do things like that.

In fact, I’d argue gotchas are often a red flag. Interviewing is a two-way street, and part of what you should be looking for is an employer who operates straightforwardly and transparently.

As for what to do if you see a typo in another ad sometime: Eh. I’ve seen applicants point out typos well, and I’ve seen them do it wrong. (I’ve also seen people point out “mistakes” that weren’t actually mistakes. Which is … not good.) In general, I’d err on the side of not doing it unless you’ve been invited to, because offering up unsolicited edits can come across as annoying at least as often as it comes across helpfully. There’s a small potential upside but a larger potential downside.

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