66.1, February 2019

Genre Chameleon: Email, Professional Writing Curriculum, and Workplace Writing Expectations

By Patricia Welsh Droz and Lorie Stagg Jacobs

Abstract

Purpose: Inspired by the National Commission on Writing’s 2004 job market survey, we sought to verify that our professional writing curriculum met the needs of local employers, and to test if a demand exists for a writing major. Our study explores workplace genre conventions in light of responses.

Method: Using a grounded theory approach, we gathered data in two stages using a mixed-methods design of interviews and questionnaires.

Results: Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated that their respective companies require greater than three quarters of salaried employees to produce formal workplace writing. Further, most respondents (92%) affirmed that prospective professional/salaried employees are “almost always” adversely affected by poorly written materials. Respondents defined “poor writing” in prospective and new hires in a variety of ways. All respondents chose Email as a “daily genre of writing” that eclipses the popularity of any other genre. Applicants and new hires were perceived negatively if “formal” written email skills were absent.

Conclusion: New hires’ genre convention mistakes are interpreted as lack of training or skill, or knowledge errors. We posit that novices must adapt to the company writing culture, learning the communicative threshold concepts as they would other aspects of company culture. We posit email has a new, descriptive grammar, altogether—a set of rules deployed in individual workplaces that may not carry over to the next employer. So, we propose that email be taught and recognized in workplaces as what we have termed a “chameleon genre,” a genre that does whatever its users want it to do.

Keywords: workplace writing for non-majors, professional writing curriculum, email as genre, communities of practice, threshold concepts

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Recreating the 2004 National Commission on Writing study for our local job market, researchers confirmed writing is even more important for today’s workplace, most noticeably in the resounding value placed on effective email communication in multiple and variable contexts.
  • Researchers conclude email is an ever-changing reflection of and response to workplace culture, and, therefore, instructors, textbooks, and even workplaces themselves could do a better job of describing the chameleon genre for students and new hires.

Introduction

According to Lisa Meloncon (2012), professional writing programs “are an important touchstone in the field more so than other academic programs because they sit at the intersection between academia and industry providing an interesting mix of training and education, a bridge between theory and practice” (p. 220). Motivated by this connection and newly tasked with marketing a budding professional writing program with an existing minor, a developing major, and an updated graduate degree, our research team began the work of analyzing our target audience (students) and creating marketing materials. However, we quickly discovered that to truly understand the wants and needs of potential students, we needed to extend our market analysis beyond campus boundaries, reaching toward surrounding businesses and community partners. Furthermore, we needed to interrogate the parameters of our academic duties, identifying not only how the workplace can inform program development but also how (and if) program development can influence the workplace.

Extending and localizing the 2004 survey and report by the National Commission on Writing (NCW), Writing: A Ticket to Work, or a Ticket Out, our research explores the local business’ and economy leaders’ attitudes about writing in the workplace. The original NCW report targeted members of the Business Roundtable, human resource managers from national and multinational corporations who cumulatively employ over eight million workers, and collected a total of 64 responses. Our study captured perspectives from business owners, employees, and human resource managers alike from a range of corporation sizes. For example, our students are regularly hired by NASA-Johnson Space Center, Boeing and similar aerospace industry leaders, as well as Fortune 500 companies, plus health and social service agencies. These organizations and businesses expect that our graduates will be able to write clearly, cogently, and effectively. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. On a national scale, technical communicators know from the NCW’s report that employers routinely spend millions of dollars on re-training skills—writing and communication chief among them. Our project seeks to define and describe the writing demands of our local marketplace.

Like many, we often wonder whether or not our curriculum is sufficiently meeting the needs of our students. Any good writing program strives to assess and re-assess in an effort to grow and develop with the demands of technology and the modern workplace. At our institution, upper-level writing has long been relegated to the back seat in education as a “service” to other fields; for example, we teach Written Communication in Business for the College of Business, Technical Writing for the College of Computer Science & Engineering, Writing for Education, and Writing for Social Sciences, among others. There is a constant demand for teaching effectiveness. Additionally, our program seeks to extend our minor in Professional Writing to a major. Thus, the original purpose of our research was to verify that our emerging curriculum was aligned with the needs of significant local employers and that there was a demand for a major.

To explore these issues fully, we will provide institutional context that led to the study, some of the theories that underlie our discussion, detailed methods and results, and novel insights about the teaching of workplace genres, specifically email, in light of threshold concepts.

Institutional Context

If our goal is to learn more about how we can best meet the needs of our students and the businesses they’ll likely work for, it is valuable to reflect on who these students are exactly. Our institution is a regional commuter campus, four-year school, that offers several master’s degrees and a few doctoral programs. We are located in Southeast Texas, part of the Houston metroplex. Houston is now the fourth largest city in the nation and home to the largest medical center in the world (“Facts and Figures,” 2017). The area is home to thousands of energy-related firms, making Houston the “Energy Capital of the World.” In addition, 23 Fortune 500 companies are headquartered here and another 40 maintain a significant presence. Houston is booming. Therefore, most of our students are local and plan to stay that way. We are confident that, for our students, the demands of the local marketplace are more important than those on a national scale.

Approximately 90% of our graduating students transfer from another institution; most (around 60%) transfer in their junior year after completing two years at community college, for the purpose of completing a baccalaureate degree. We are a Hispanic-serving institution boasting a student population that is 35% Latina/o. Our students are traditional aged but non-traditional: While we have a significant group of older students returning to school for a second career (29%), 70% are between the ages of 18 and 27. Many of them are veterans attending on the G.I. Bill. Forty percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and 50% are Pell eligible. In our experience with them, we have ascertained that these are people who want what they perceive to be “pragmatic classes” that can be applied directly to their future careers.

As noted above, the majority of our students transfer from one of the area community colleges or earn dual-credit in high school, thereby skipping our first-year writing series. However, a writing in the disciplines course is required for all majors at our institution; thus, nearly every student will eventually sit in one of our writing program classrooms. The vast majority of our students are attending school while working 30 hours or more, they are often parents, and nearly all of them are juggling multiple responsibilities. This makes extra time on campus unlikely. This aligns with Tinto and Engle’s (2008) findings that “[working-class] students are less likely to be engaged in the academic and social experiences that foster success in college, such as studying in groups, interacting with faculty and other students, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services” (p. 3), work that typically happens outside of the classroom. Moreover, this group of students needs to know why higher education matters and how it will impact their future success. Our students need buy-in; they value “value.” Therefore, the work of engaging students must happen in the classroom. How better to build a pragmatic connection between classroom work and the workplace than to learn more about the real-life writing requirements of their future jobs?

Writing for Success

Technical communicators and educators know from the 2004 NCW survey of human resources managers that “opportunities for salaried employment are limited for employees unable to communicate clearly” (p. 19). The NCW calls writing a “gatekeeper” to the workplace and reports that more than two thirds of salaried employees at the surveyed firms have some responsibility for writing as a part of their regular duties. This finding is of particular concern for minority and working-class students who are invested in obtaining the upward mobility of salaried employment.

Because writing is so important on the job, business leaders put a lot of value on it when evaluating job candidates. The NCW (2004) reports, for instance, that “fully 86 percent of responding companies report they would hold poorly written application materials against a job candidate, either ‘frequently’ or ‘almost always’” (p.10). One respondent to the 2004 NCW survey wrote, “good writing is a sign of good thinking” (p. 8). Writing has also been consistently valued by employers over time. In 2015, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) reported results from a poll of 400 employers and found that 82% rated written communication as a top priority for college graduates entering the job market. In short, writing ability is still the ticket to landing a good job.

Writing is also important for long-term success and promotion. The NCW (2004) found that writing plays a role in promotion decisions for more than 50% of all responding companies. However, the NCW also pointed out that their respondents likely had the pick of graduates from the best schools, and the companies where writing mattered most screened applicants for writing ability before hiring. In other words, writing plays less of a role in promotion amongst their respondents because writing skills are a given for hiring in the first place. Therefore, the 2004 business leaders felt that “a lack of writing ability is more likely to be a factor in termination than in promotion decisions” (p. 15, emphasis added). Respondents were not asked explicitly about promotion decisions in the 2015 AAC&U study. However, several of the questions asked about “long-term success” of college graduates, which certainly implies promotion. Indeed, one conclusion from the AAC&U report is that written communication, along with problem-solving and critical thinking, is more important than a student’s major for determining long term success.

Both of the studies discussed above investigate on a national scale. While we found both useful in justifying a professional writing major to administration, we still wanted to provide more specific, relevant data for our students. It would be easy for many of our working-class students to dismiss national data as “not applicable” to their unique situations. Therefore, one goal of our study was to update and tailor the NCW’s survey to learn more about the local Houston job market.

Disconnect

Invoking Read and Michaud (2015), “as [we thought] more about [our] dilemma—how to design a [program] in professional writing for an audience of multi-major undergraduate students”—we began to think about our population of predominantly working-class students, whose only “exposure to workplace literacy” (p. 428) may be our curriculum. We want to believe our graduates embody Read and Michaud’s (2015) assertion that “what students take with them across the academic-workplace boundary is less a set of explicitly transferable skills and more a generalized rhetorical capacity that enables them to successfully adapt to new rhetorical situations” (p. 428). Nonetheless, the degree to which rhetorical capacity transfers has been debated for decades (Freedman, Adam, & Smart, 1994; Winsor, 1996; Dannels, 2003; Russell, 1997; Anson & Forsberg, 1990; Yu, 2008).

Further, national studies indicate employers do not think highly of the writing skills of new college graduates. The AAC&U (2015) report states “employers feel that today’s college graduates are not particularly well prepared to achieve the learning outcomes that they view as important” (p. 1), including written communication. Further, there is a disconnect between employers’ assessment of graduates’ preparedness and the students’ assessment of themselves. For example, 65% of college students surveyed said they felt they were well prepared in written communication. Whereas, only 27% of employers felt the same way. Only critical thinking had a wider gap. We believe most of our readers would agree critical thinking and written communication go hand in hand.

The NCW (2004) mailed questionnaires to 120 human resources managers and had the resources to follow up with those individuals so that they received 64 responses at a response rate of 53.3%. The paper questionnaire asked respondents to describe the kinds of writing typical on the job and found that email and oral presentations are ubiquitous across industries. In addition, in 2004, technical and formal reports as well as memos and (non-electronic) correspondence were quite common in most companies. This likely accounts for the genre coverage of most business and technical communication textbooks, which are likely to contain multiple chapters on reports and correspondence. We wondered whether the same genres are valued today, given the even more electronic and connected nature of the 2017 workplace.

The 2004 report also asked respondents to identify specific writing traits that were valuable in the workplace. Researchers concluded “whatever the form of communication, it is clear that respondents expect written materials to be accurate, clear, and grammatically correct” (NCW, p. 11). Writing instructors know that each of these is a function of the rhetorical situation, given different audiences are likely to be more or less forgiving of “error.”

Faculty in other disciplines have noticed that classroom assignments are limited in their ability to replicate the audience awareness required in the workplace. Describing engineering students in their disciplinary courses, Paretti (2006) points out the following:

While faculty routinely develop assignments that reflect common workplace documents such as proposals, progress reports, and design specifications, [engineering faculty] do not develop assignments that enable students to enact the critical workplace practice of adapting those formats to the needs of individual audiences. Consequently, students master formats but struggle to successfully adapt the content, organization, tone, and design of those formats to the specific needs of the situation—and thus fail to communicate effectively in the workplace. (p. 190)

She argues engineering faculty should, ideally, aim for real-world experiences in the classroom via service-learning, client-based models, and problem-based learning, but acknowledges some of these methods are too time-consuming to be practical in many classrooms.

Susan Conrad (2017) recently extended the discussion of engineering students’ communication skills, stating that while many studies have identified the gap between student and workplace writing, few have examined those differences: “Underlying the student writing problems were misconceptions about effective writing, ignorance of genre expectations, weak language skills, and a failure to appreciate that written words, not just calculations, express engineering content” (p. 191). She also notes, “Handbooks and textbooks meant to teach technical writing are rarely based on research about effective writing in industry contexts, and they have been found to misrepresent workplace communication needs” (p. 193). Conrad thus suggests that the problem isn’t just within engineering classrooms but possibly general, multi-major technical writing classrooms as well.

Genre or Non-genre?

Literacy and, by extension, genre have long been studied as a function within social hierarchy, made ever more complicated by socio-economic status (Brandt, 2001; Hull, 1993; Hull, 1997; Miller, 1984; Smart, 1993; Winsor, 2000). Smart (1993) defines genre “as a broad rhetorical strategy enacted, collectively, by members of a community in order to create knowledge essential to their aims” (p. 124). He goes on to explain that genres are site specific: “The community invents the genres it needs for creating written knowledge” (pp. 124–125). Smart argues that this theory helps explain both the “textual features common to all the community’s genres and for textual features that differentiate these genres” (p. 124). More recently, others have identified a “literacy conflict” upon entering the workplace. Remley (2014) suggests, “a literacy conflict occurs when communication practices used in workplaces appear to compete with cultural perceptions of which skills ought to be valued or are discarded as utilitarian within a specific historical context” (p. 5). In other words, if you enter a new workplace but do not sign your email message the way everyone else does, your literacy (competence) may be perceived as questionable. Perhaps due to the fluidity of 21st century means of communication, Horner (2013) defines literacy as “a constantly shifting set of unstable, internally various, fluid and heterogeneous practices” (p. 2). Horner argues, “The emergence of new literacy technologies has made newly visible as technologies those literacy technologies that previously had been taken for granted as, and equated with, literacy” (p. 6, emphasis in the original). The modern workplace must be re-theorized in such a way that we, and by extension students, can keep pace with ever-changing genres and emerging written technologies.

Linguists have conducted studies of workplace writing in different parts of the world, identifying genre complications on the job, specifically those that arise when traditional genres go digital (Davies & Birbili, 2000; Giltrow & Stein, 2009; Gillearts, 2012; AlAfnan, 2015). But questions remain about the all-too-ubiquitous email. A few have homed in on the solicitation email (phishing) as its own genre under the larger umbrella of electronic mail message (Ross, 2009; Viswamohan, Hadfield, & Hadfield, 2010). On the other hand, Giltrow and Stein (2009) argue that few would consider email a genre anymore: “It is probably more correct to say that it enables several genres, but is there a superordinate category? A hyper-genre?” (pp. 9–10). This idea attempts to account for the inherent differences in rhetorical situation of email. For example, an email to a friend or close co-worker would be quite different than one to a client, just as an email that delivers job application materials would be different than one that announces a new company policy.

More recent studies are still trying to define and describe the email message. Gillearts (2012) studied email use in a Belgian company and pointed to its “hybridity,” a blend between dialogue and written communication. Others have noted the hybrid nature of email, though not in the workplace setting. Peter Elbow notes that many would not classify email as “writing” because of its close ties to speech. Yet, in his view, “email is a powerful example of how it’s possible to bring the ease of speaking to the activity of writing” (2012, p. 136, emphasis in the original). Perhaps it is the supposed ease of email that creates communicative problems on the job, since even the experts can’t decide if email is spam, hyper-genre, hybrid-genre, speech-genre, or even a genre at all. Email functions as a chameleon genre, ever-changing to match varying rhetorical situations. Email conventions vary from workplace to workplace and fluctuate between delivery device, dialogue, and stand-alone message, making it hard to pin down. While this article will focus largely on email as an example of our findings, we theorize that other genres will need to be similarly recontextualized as new technologies emerge.

Communities of Practice

Situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) questions whether traditional classroom-based learning is as effective as situational learning in the workplace or other “real-world” arenas. Lave and Wenger posited that “communities of practice” surround us and that learning itself is inherently social. Communities of practice exist everywhere from roller-hockey teams (Adler-Kassner, 2014) to funeral homes (Valentine, Woodthorpe, & Easthope, 2013). Communities of Practice (CoPs) have been studied in dozens of workplace settings and are the basis for such pedagogical methods as service-learning. One integral feature of CoPs is the emerging identity formation of members. More recent work links CoPs and threshold concepts (Land, Meyer, & Flanagan, 2016; Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015) or “new and previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something [. . .] [which] represent [. . .] transformed way[s] of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress [in the discipline]” (Meyer & Land, 2006, as quoted by Adler-Kassner, 2014, p. 451). Adler-Kassner (2014) explains that failure to understand the threshold concepts of a discipline (or workplace) could result in failed membership on the part of the novice. Appropriate use of email may be a threshold concept in many institutions.

For example, Rains and Young (2006) discuss the email signature as a culturally learned representation of workplace identity. Just the signature. Their analysis finds that signatory information, such as education and job title, is used to convey status or authority. Thus, the signature is an important cultural signifier that cuts across institutions and professions: “Signatures represent an electronic identity that is a co-product of one’s work environment and the constraints/opportunities of email . . . [It] is also distinct in that it must be amenable to one’s co-present interactions” (Rains & Young, 2006, p. 1056). They go on to discuss how signatures may provide a sense of identity or connectedness within the organization or may be a conflation of privacy and accountability concerns, given regular email scandals (Rains & Young, 2006).

Additionally, Faith Kurtyka (2015) uses linguistic analysis to taxonomize the development of leadership skills via the emails of one sorority leader. Kurtyka points to the rhetorical strategies used over time to “try out a range of intellectual tools for different leadership personas” (p. 22) all within her email messages to the group. An interesting aspect of both Rains and Young’s (2006) and Kurtyka’s (2015) articles is that they emphasize how these strategies are learned behavior upon entering a new community of practice or changing roles within a CoP. Appropriate and/or effective use of email and other workplace-specific genres demonstrates membership in the target CoP.

The burden for educators, then, is to “pull back the curtain[s] on the formation of disciplinary expertise” (Nowacek, 2011, p. 129). Similar to Adler-Kassner, we hope to adapt professional writing courses so that “they explicitly address how students learn to identify and participate in the threshold concepts of the discipline in which the course is situated” (2014, p. 451). Adler-Kassner, among others, is a champion of service-learning as a solution that emulates communities of practice and addresses both audience and genre confusion (Bush-Bacelis, 1998; Cox, Ortmeier-Hooper, & Tiravassi, 2009; Dubinsky & Bowdon, 2005; Stone, 2000). Service-learning offers the novice the opportunity to practice meeting real-life audience demands and discovering genres unique to a specific workplace. Therefore, novices can practice joining a new CoP or at least see one in action, even if only temporarily.

Although the benefits of service-learning cannot be denied, such strategies are often too time-consuming to be practical. As described above, our students are unlikely to spend time outside of class doing field work, even those who might intellectually prefer the pragmatism of on-the-job-like training. Further, many of our junior-level writing-in-the-disciplines courses are taught by adjuncts and pre-tenured professors who need more efficient, less cumbersome methods to draw on. We imagine service-learning playing a role in the capstone course of our emerging major but not being an ideal solution for the lower-level courses required of non-majors. What remains, then, is how to teach workplace genres effectively in absentia from the workplace itself.

Thus, our research questions are as follows:

  • How essential are writing skills to hiring in our local marketplace?
  • How essential is writing to promotion and tenure in the local workplace?
  • If instructors take their teaching cues from textbooks, are we teaching the right things? Do area employers really value the genres we teach?
  • Do members of the local workplace use the same language academics and practitioners do to talk about genre?

Method

Using a grounded theory approach, we gathered data in two stages using a mixed-methods design of interviews and questionnaires. Stage 1 data grounded our theoretical approach for Stage 2.

Stage One: Semi-structured Interviews of Local Professionals

Instrument

To further understand the role of writing in the workplace, we gathered qualitative data via semi-structured interviews with six respondents from four of the major industries in our geographical area, as defined by our university’s career services office: aerospace, finance, social services, and healthcare. Interview questions were adapted from the 2004 NCW survey instrument, which focused on the common genres of writing in the workplace, as well as the importance of communication skills in the hiring, retention, and promotion of recruits. (See Appendix A for question set.)

Participants and data

Interview respondents were solicited from our personal contacts, no incentives were offered, and interviews were conducted in neutral public locations such as restaurants and coffee shops. Interviews were audio-recorded using Recorder, a smartphone application, and later transcribed using edited verbatim transcription conventions (Gubrium & Holstein, 2001).

Our original intention for the project was to simply gather marketable catchphrases from industry insiders for inclusion on our writing program’s promotional materials. We thus sought a small and admittedly unrepresentative respondent pool. However, our initial inquiry revealed common responses across industries and our unaffiliated networks, which warranted further investigation.

Theoretical framework

Driven by the ubiquity of similar responses, we systematized our approach with “Discourse Spotting” (Sunderland, 2004), a method that reveals recurrent interpretive discourses or topoi, the latter being the more recognizable term for rhetoricians. To move past an informal insight and into a formal analysis, we coded the transcripts for analytically interesting segments of talk to discover recurrent themes, which were then categorized as two interpretive discourses: Audience and Acculturation. Respondents bemoaned new hires’ lack of professionalism in communication, which we coded as “lack of audience awareness.” Respondents also bemoaned the process of acculturating new hires, or the expenditure of time and labor in new hires’ acquisition of institutional communication practices. “Audience” and “Acculturation,” therefore, became our point of departure for Stage Two.

Stage Two: Self-administered Questionnaires

Instrument

The theoretical framework grounded in Stage 1 became our launching point for Stage 2. As with our interviews in Stage 1, we aimed in Stage 2 to reveal the most common genres of writing, the quantity of writing, and the perceived value of writing in professional spaces. We thus adapted our interview set into a questionnaire for wider survey, but we added two questions to help us develop a greater understanding of the discourses of Audience and Acculturation in senior colleagues’ understandings of new hires’ communication patterns (See Appendix B for Questionnaire). We used Qualtrics software to draft and disseminate the instrument.

Participants

We distributed our survey via bulk email to the 790 employers registered in our Jobs4Hawks database. We sent a total of two requests, spaced four weeks apart. Self-selected participants self-administered the questionnaire, and no incentives were offered. We received a total of 26 complete surveys (.032 response rate), a below-average return (Sheehan, 2001). The original NCW report received a total of 64 completed surveys, which is also a suboptimal return (Lauer & Asher, 1988). We will explore the significance of these returns in our discussion. Respondents worked in a wide array of industries, were at mid- and upper-levels in their workplaces, and the organizations they represented ranged from small service franchises to multinational corporations, as shown in Figures 1, 2, and 3.

Coding

A research question emerging before Stage 1 considered whether our technical and business writing curricula aligned with or surpassed the composition and communication requirements of the workplaces that would most likely employ our graduates. Given our students’ value of workplace-transferrable schooling, we measured respondents’ feedback about the “types of writing” done in the workplace with a coding system reflective of the type of schooling our students would receive. We thus coded genre responses with the corresponding genre chapter in Markel’s Technical Communication (2015), Bedford-St. Martin’s bestselling tech/comm text. Markel’s (2015) text promises that it will “give you all of the tools you need to excel at workplace writing” (from the back cover). Markel’s twenty-one chapter textbook has seven chapters specifically devoted to individual writing genres, hence seven potential codes for the second stage of our study: Correspondence (letters, memos, and emails); Job application materials; Proposals, Informational reports; Recommendation reports; Lab reports; Definitions, descriptions, and instructions; Oral presentations. Indeed, Markel’s Technical Communication teaches the same content as that which is found in other technical and business communication textbooks, and its use of genre as a chapter structuring scheme is typical that which is found in other textbooks on technical communication.

Figure 1. Industries represented amongst study participants

Field/Industry Count Percentage of Total
Aerospace/Transportation 3 9%
Banking/Finance/Accounting 6 19%
Insurance/Real Estate/Legal 2 6%
Medical/Dental/Healthcare 2 6%
Construction/Architecture/Engineering/Landscape 3 9%
Education 7 23%
Energy/Chemicals 3 9%
NonProfit/Services/Government 5 16%
Journalism/Media 1 3%
Total Responses (Combining Interview and Survey) 32 100%

Figure 2. Title or rank of survey and interview respondents

Title/Rank Count Percentage of Total
CEO/CFO/President/Partner/Owner 6 19%
Director 6 19%
Manager/Supervisor 9 28%
Human Resources Manager 5 16%
Recruiter 3 9%
Independent Consultant/Specialist 3 9%
Total Responses (Combining Interview and Survey) 32 100%

Figure 3. Size of corporations represented amongst participants

Total Number of Employees Count Percentage of Total
Less than 10 4 13%
10-49 4 13%
50-99 4 13%
100-499 7 22%
500-999 1 3%
1,000-4,999 7 21%
5,000-9,999 3 9%
10,000 or more 2 6%
Total Responses (Combining Interview and Survey) 32 100%

Results

Given that our research questions considered the future employment of our graduating student body, we opted to focus our analysis on the value of writing in local workplaces and the genres that graduates would most likely encounter at those job sites. Our focus in this section is, therefore, to outline the most salient results regarding the likely agents of workplace writing; the impact of employees’ writing quality on their hiring, tenure, and promotion; and the most typical genres and conventions used in our local market.

Who Does the Writing at Work?

As indicated in Figure 4, all salaried employees have implicit or explicit job descriptions that include writing. As high as nineteen respondents (73%) indicated that their respective companies require greater than three-quarters of salaried employees to produce formal workplace writing, as defined as technical reports, memos, annual reports, or external communications. Conversely, only three respondents (12%) indicated that approximately one quarter of their respective salaried workforces are required to produce written communication as either a function or product of their jobs. However, not a single respondent suggested that any salaried employee avoids the necessity of writing in the workplace.

Figure 4. Respondent-indicated percentage of salaried employees with writing/communication responsibilities

Hourly employees are also tasked with the responsibility of writing, but not to the same extent as salaried workforces. As shown in Figure 5, five (37%) respondents indicated that 25% or less of their hourly workforce is not responsible for formal written communication. However, fourteen (63%) respondents indicated that half or more of their hourly employees are expected to produce formal workplace writing.

Figure 5. Respondent-indicated percentage of hourly employees with writing/communication responsibilities

What is the Impact of Writing on Job Acquisition and Promotion?

All surveyed employers and supervisory employees took seriously the writing abilities of prospective hourly and professional employees. Over two-thirds (69%) of those surveyed indicate that the quality of new hires’ writing is formally evaluated with either a test, writing sample, or review of coursework; eight (31%) respondents use only job materials to make their assessments, despite their obvious limitation as a measure of good writing, a flaw made clear by one of our interviewees: “it is easy [for prospective employees] to get help with [writing] them.”

Only one (4%) of those surveyed devotes only occasional time and attention to the communication skills of all that participant’s salaried employees. However, the vast majority of respondents (24 out of 26 or 92%) affirm that prospective professional/salaried employees are “almost always” adversely affected by poorly written materials, while the one remaining respondent checked the “frequently” box. Nine respondents (36%) claim that prospective hourly employees would “almost always” be adversely affected, while thirteen (52%) of surveyed employers state that prospective hourly workers would “frequently” be affected.

Respondents defined “poor writing” in prospective and new hires in a variety of ways: Eleven (44%) considered poor writing to be a lack of sentence-level skills; seven (28%) claim it is a lack of audience awareness (questionable formality); four respondents (16%) identified poor writing as the failure to understand logical organizational strategies; and two participants (8%) noted that poor writing tends to be the misunderstandings of proper formatting and modes for communication. Nevertheless, interview data reveal that senior workers and employers often overlap two or more of these problematic areas. For example, a clinical psychologist interviewed in Stage 1 recalled a time when materials written by her intern were thrown out “because they were so disorganized” (logical organizational strategies). She went on to claim that “[new hires] need to be aware of who they’re writing for,” which suggests that audience awareness may be the ultimate issue for prospective and recent hires.

The same clinical psychologist revealed in her reflection of the intern what our quantitative data demonstrated clearly in Stage 2: “Good writing” has many characteristics, including accuracy, clarity, conciseness, technical precision, visual appeal, and sentence level features (spelling, punctuation, and grammar). There is no evidence to show that “good writing” is simply grammatical prowess; rather, it is the interplay of several facets. As shown in Figure 6 below, the majority of respondents believe that each characteristic of good writing is “extremely important” in equal measure, with the exception of conciseness, technical precision, and visual appeal, which still retain relatively high esteem as “very important” and “moderately important.”

Figure 6. Respondents’ ranking of perceived workplace value of writing characteristics

The ability to produce “good writing” in all areas is clearly important to senior colleagues and employers; and this skill continues to be valued when promotion and tenure decisions are being made. As indicated in Figure 7, effective formal communication skills are taken into consideration when making promotion decisions for hourly and professional employees alike. Sixteen (67%) respondents declared that local professional/salaried employees’ demonstration of effective formal communication is “essential” to an employee’s ability to move up in the workplace hierarchy, and seven (27%) claim that it is taken into consideration “a lot.” Only 2 (8%) respondents claimed that effective communication is only “somewhat” important for professional/salaried employees’ advancement.

Figure 7. Respondents’ ranking of the importance of effective written communication for promotion decisions

Hourly workers’ professional advancement is not as dependent upon effective communication skills: Only five (21%) respondents claimed that effective communication skills are “essential” for institutional advancement and nine (38%) stated that such skills were taken into consideration a lot. The largest number of respondents, ten (42%), selected “somewhat,” thereby suggesting that effective communication is occasionally taken into consideration when promotion decisions are being made for hourly workers. In all, the data reveal that effective communication is generally tied to institutional advancement for all workers, but salaried workers in particular.

Which Genres are Commonly Used at Work?

Technical and business communication textbooks teach writing according to genre, with the most attention being paid in individual chapters for proposals, informational reports, recommendation reports, lab reports, job application materials, and correspondence. To answer this research question, and to move toward an understanding of the vocabulary workplace experts used, we asked respondents to list the types of writing performed, both daily and regularly, but less frequently, in their own words (see Appendix B, survey questions 1 and 2). In addition, we asked respondents to indicate how often specific genres were used (see Appendix B, survey question 8). In combining the data from all three questions, our findings show that workplace writing tends to use all genres, but to varying degrees. For instance, the majority of respondents (58%, or 15 respondents) report that social media posts are “almost never” or only “occasionally” the responsibility of the average worker (see Figure 8). However, as is shown in Figure 9, a word cloud representing popular responses to the question of types of writing employees are expected to produce on a daily basis, email is named most frequently. (See Appendix C for specific word counts to support word clouds.)

Later in the survey, when we named the genres explicitly and asked how frequently various genres were used, the true ubiquity of email was revealed. Responses to this question echo the first: 100% of respondents indicated email is used “almost always” in daily work (see Figure 8). No other genre comes close to the popularity of email as a workplace writing product. Report writing is the closest genre in popularity, with ten (38%) respondents indicating informational report writing is “almost always” used. But it is named less frequently by respondents when asked to use their own words, and then more often as a type of writing done by employees on a regular, but periodic, basis (see Figure 10 and Appendix C).

Figure 8. Count of respondents ranking frequency use of researcher-specified writing genres
Figure 9. Respondent-provided word frequency for daily types of workplace writing
Figure 10. Respondent-provided word frequency for occasional types of writing at work

Limitations

According to Sheehan (2001), emailed survey requests have had decreasing response rates since 1986. Fan and Yan (2010) point to the “increasing use of spamming filters” (p. 134) as one possible cause of lower response rates of digital surveys in comparison to other collection methods, such as snail mail and telephone. The original NCW survey, which is widely regarded as well-designed and executed, mailed a traditional paper questionnaire to a selected group of 120 human resource managers, to whom they were able to telephone or email reminders. Hohwü et al. (2013) reveal that paper questionnaires, while expensive and labor intensive, nonetheless receive a higher return rate than Web-based surveys. Fan & Yan (2010) suggest use of mixed mode surveys to “combine the strengths of each mode” (p. 135). Limited by funding, time, and manpower, paper was not an option for this study. We were also at the mercy of privacy regulations within our own university, which thwarted direct access to the email list, via which we may have sent reminders after two days as recommended by Crawford et al. (2001).

Our survey response rate (.032) can be considered statistically insignificant, largely, because we cast a wide net, had limited reminder opportunities, and likely met with the interference of spam filters: We sent out approximately 1,000 surveys, making only two calls within four weeks, and 210 bounced back due to incorrect addresses. We cannot know how many of the remaining 790 were intercepted by spam filters—many of our targets were security-conscious energy corporations and government agencies. However, our interviews reinforce our survey data. Thus, we feel confident that even if we collected more survey responses, we would yield similar results to those presented here. Nonetheless, if future researchers repeat this methodology, we recommend finding a way to increase the response rate, perhaps by providing incentives, reminding participants promptly after the initial call, or distributing the survey with a mixed mode approach, so as to side-step spam filters.

Discussion

Chameleon Genre

In the effort to answer questions about our own regional workplaces so that we might transfer that knowledge to the classroom, we found trends that apply much more broadly. Our research shows that writing is essential in the workplace for salaried and unsalaried workers, alike; and it travels with employees at every stage of their careers.

Recall that our survey repeats many of the same questions asked in the NCW study but also accounts for 2017 genre expectations and modern infrastructures of writing. Effective writing and communication plays a large role in hiring and promotion decisions, indeed. Specifically, our study shows that what NCW found in 2004 still holds, sometimes with remarkable similarities or even greater impact. For example, in the 2004 survey, more than two-thirds of salaried employees had some responsibility for writing as part of their regular job requirements. Whereas, 82% of our respondents stated that three-quarters or more of salaried employees “have job descriptions with responsibility for writing/communication” (Q. 4, Appendix B). Similarly, while 86% of the 2004 respondents said poorly written job materials would negatively affect the hiring process, 92% of our respondents said the same (Q. 5, Appendix B). This illustrates that while writing is valued highly for landing a good job across the country, in our local marketplace today, writing is even more essential to getting a career off to a good start.

We found writing has a greater impact on long-term success in our local marketplace as well. While the 2004 business leaders said writing plays a role in promotion decisions for more than 50% of responding companies, 64% or our participants said writing was “essential” to promotion and another 28% said it mattered “a lot” (Q. 10, Appendix B). Clearly, writing well is highly important to Houston-area businesses.

Perhaps more interesting than the impact of writing ability on one’s chances for hire and promotion, though—which, if we are honest, is quite intuitive—is that our research raises questions about genre and threshold concepts in professional writing courses, or, rather, the disconnect in genre and threshold concepts between college writing assignments and on-the-job writing. Therefore, the remainder of our discussion will attempt to unravel the observations of our survey and interview participants by focusing on the relevance and transfer of composition curriculum to the workplace and, by extension, what we argue is the (mis)handling of writing as a component of workplace culture.

Are We Teaching the Right Things?

As noted by Knisely and Knisely (2015) and others, our study further illuminated the harsh reality where new hires often are perceived as generally technically proficient but communicatively incompetent. Our interview data explained that the primary complaint from employers and senior employees is that recent graduates “don’t sound professional” in their emails and that recent graduates do not consider their audience (though these aren’t the words employers are using). Recall that the AAC&U report (2015) found only 27% of employers felt students were well prepared in written communication.

As would be expected, a significant portion of our respondents focused on grammar, usage, and spelling. (We, and many readers, would argue grammar, usage, and spelling are themselves audience-specific.) However, more than half of the respondents highlighted matters related to genre, audience, and/or revision. And there were a few that succinctly observed literacy conflicts in genres. For example, one respondent quipped, “[New hires] tend to write a letter in the form of very informal text mode, not utilizing proper grammar and punctuation. Text and email has taken the place of a proper letter or memo” (Q. 12, Appendix B). Given the sheer volume of times email is named amongst survey and interview respondents, we wonder whether what we are witnessing is the chameleon nature of a hybrid genre. Indeed, these days, email, texting, and instant messaging can be used interchangeably on multiple mobile devices for one conversation. We find our own work style does exactly this, where one conversation might be started in an email, continue via text, and conclude in the instant messaging function in Google Docs or Skype.

Conrad (2017) observed the physical differences between the written communication of professional engineers in comparison to engineering students and found that students struggled with genre conventions, grammar and usage, and the characteristics of effective writing more generally. Recall that Smart (1993) argued “the community invents the genres it needs for creating written knowledge” (pp. 124–125). And, indeed, genres are fluid and site or community-specific. We argue email is the most fluid of them all, which is at once a genre of its own, a mode of communication, dialogic, and a delivery device for other genres (such as a PDF of a report or an Excel spreadsheet). Remley (2014) suggests “a literacy conflict occurs when communication practices used in the workplace appear to compete with cultural perceptions of which skills ought to be valued” (p. 5). The reality is that every industry, and perhaps every company or organization, uses email differently. But they all use it.

Indeed, the NCW study, Writing: A Ticket to Work, or a Ticket Out, pointed out the ubiquity of email way back in 2004. Thirteen years later, it’s only more so. And yet, according to participants in our study, new graduates still don’t seem to have a handle on the changeable reptile. This indicates either that we’ve been teaching “email as genre” wrong or that the employers are misperceiving as “error” what is instead new hires’ ignorance of the company’s writing culture (norms/mores). Or maybe both, resulting in a literacy conflict.

We can find evidence for the field’s incorrect teaching of email by simply looking at the disparity in importance that email is given by composition instructors, relative to its mention by workplace respondents. While email is the genre identified by 100% of respondents as “almost always” used in workplace writing, and it is repeatedly invoked by interviewees who have been asked to recall salient experiences involving communication at work, those of us teaching and writing about technical and business communication tend to treat the email genre as an aside, a mere sub-genre of correspondence. This trend is noticeable and arguably perpetuated by several bestselling textbooks in technical & business communication, which provide email instruction in a few pages, within the same space they make for memos, letters, and, increasingly, text messaging. For instance, Markel’s Business & Technical Communication devotes three pages to email, with content focused on netiquette and an activity devoted to following netiquette in an email. In all fairness, more email training accompanies the textbook on its Launchpad site, though not everyone can be counted upon to use that website. An exception, and one that may be more typical of textbooks looking forward, is Lannon and Gurak’s (2017) Technical Communication, now in its fourteenth edition, which has eleven chapters devoted to various genres, with a standout chapter on email and text messaging. However, the most easily retrievable texts from academic presses still teach email as a subgenre of correspondence, such as Thill and Bovee (2017), Excellence in Business Communication; Oliu, Brusaw, and Alrad (2016), Writing That Works: Communicating Effectively on the Job; and Searles (2017), Workplace Communications: The Basics. Such treatment is likely a holdover from a bygone era, when the form and function of email had less permeable boundaries.

Yet our data suggest that the boundaries of workplace email appear to be changing, moving outward, and possibly disappearing altogether, since our respondents indicate that email does the work of many genres. However, it seems composition instructors are not generally teaching students the chameleon ways of this electronic medium. We are relatively certain that many composition instructors, ourselves included, tend to design our courses by taking major cues from our textbook adoptions, often teaching material in the order and proportion it is handled in our chosen materials. If that is true, and we suspect it is, then educators are certainly not teaching email “correctly.” After all, instructors may suggest that email has several functions, as Markel (2015) mentions briefly in a chapter on informational reporting (p. 446). However, if instructors use textbooks for their instructional cues, as mentioned above, then they are presumably not teaching that email may often be doing the work of other taught genres.

To borrow terms from linguistics, educators may be teaching that email has a prescribed grammar, a set of rules for its form and function that should be deployed in all events. Educators affirm the value of proper mechanics, grammar, and spelling but tend to consider email more informal than the other genres taught, such as reports and presentations. However, in the workplace, email does not follow prescribed rules from textbooks; it has a new, descriptive grammar, altogether—a set of rules deployed in individual workplaces that may not carry over to the next employer. So, this article proposes that email should be taught as what we have termed a chameleon genre, a genre that does whatever its users want it to do.

Family Chamaeleonidae

Therein lies the rub: Industry insiders know the descriptive genre conventions; they know that an email can be formal or informal, reporting high-stakes proprietary information or simply asking someone out for lunch. Senior workers know how to wield email for their purposes, and they know what is normative in their workplace. However, our research indicates no one appears to be teaching this information to the new hires, yet new hires are held accountable for their “laziness” according to one respondent, their “boneheaded mistakes,” according to another, and “email responses that [use] ‘text’ speech,” according to a third. This same last respondent warned prospective employees: “If you can’t compose a formal email, we can not move forward.” Clearly, new hires’ emails are a mess. Our research suggests that composition instructors are not teaching email correctly for today’s workplaces. But the problem may also lay in the teaching of workplace culture, which happens on the job. We suspect that senior workers do not “name what they know,” to borrow concepts from Adler-Kassner and Wardle (2015), so they cannot teach these important concepts during onboarding of their new hires.

According to Ray Land’s (2015) preface to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s Naming What We Know, writing “can never stop outside of culture” (p. xii). The book, as the title suggests, lists and describes the knowledge the discipline of Writing Studies has accumulated so far. Specifically, the text defines the “threshold concepts” of our discipline. Originated by Cousin (2006) as a means of understanding effective teaching and learning in the UK, and extended to the field of economics by Meyer and Land (2006), “threshold concepts are concepts critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice” (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015, p. 2). The characteristics of threshold concepts, as described in Naming What We Know, are as follows:

  • Threshold concepts are transformative, changing the learner’s perception of self and the world.
  • Once learned, they are “irreversible” and unforgettable. In other words, once known they cannot be unknown and it would be difficult to remember not knowing.
  • Threshold concepts are integrative and create connections for the learner.
  • At first, they are often “alien” or counterintuitive and hard for the learner to grasp (p. 2).

In short, mastery of threshold concepts is what distinguishes the expert from the novice within a community of practice.

Of the thirty-seven threshold concepts of writing studies, number fourteen is “Genres are enacted by writers and readers.” Hart- Davidson (2015) reminds us “genres are constructions of groups over time usually with the implicit or explicit sanction of organizational or institutional power” (in Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s Naming What We Know, p. 40, emphasis added) and that “genres are habitual responses to recurring socially bounded situations” (p. 39). Hart-Davidson goes on to assert “genres are only relatively stable. Generic forms are open to hybridization and change over time” (p. 40, emphasis in the original). Yet, as is indicated above, textbooks continue to teach workplace genres as stable, fixed sets of conventions. This is especially problematic when it comes to email.

The participants in our study are each members of distinct communities of practice (CoP). And each of those CoPs has its own discourse, its own corpus of knowledge, its own genre conventions. Imagine, for a moment, the various workplace cultures of our individual respondents and how they have each evolved. Each new member acclimates to the company culture slowly over time, until she or he is no longer a novice but an expert within the CoP. If the theory of threshold concepts holds true, each of these new members encountered new ideas that were transformative, irreversible, integrative, and, at first, counterintuitive. But now that they have mastered them, our participants are unlikely to remember not knowing these threshold concepts within the community of practice. They are likely not cognizant of how much their own process of membership has shaped the values of the CoP today.

Professionals in the businesses surveyed may understand that other aspects of company culture take time to learn and may not expect new hires to automatically sign up for the company softball team or remember the core mission of “accountability first.” Writing studies professionals know communication practices are an integral part of work culture. Yet, writing, and more importantly what is defined as “good writing,” is not generally understood by our participants (or American society at large for that matter) as the complex, context-specific, cultural learning process that is well documented in Naming What We Know and by decades of writing studies research. We see evidence of this contradiction in stories told by our participants.

And as evidence of where our burden truly lies, one respondent wrote, “Universally, entry level staff write poorly. This is a problem with our entire education system starting with elementary school, but needs to be fixed before students are released from college.” This respondent is seemingly unaware that genres are constructed by CoPs with “the implicit or explicit sanction of organizational or institutional power” (Hart-Davidson, 2015, p. 40). A new hire would have to learn the specific genre conventions of his or her institution regardless of his or her writing strengths or weaknesses upon “release” from college, just as this respondent did, though, likely, he or she no longer remembers. The respondent also doesn’t appear to recognize or acknowledge how writing has changed over time within and without the institution. As such, the writing mistakes of new hires are perhaps misinterpreted as lack of training, knowledge error, or unskilled writing. The novice must adapt to the company writing culture and learn the communicative threshold concepts, in much the same way he or she must adapt to the company culture at large. And he or she must continue to do so as the genre conventions within that company evolve over time.

Conclusion

Email as genre is sticky at best. Perhaps because of its electronic nature, there seems to be a transfer of texting language to email, speech conventions to the written form (Gillearts, 2012). And if the use and specific conventions of email signatures vary by profession and organization (Rains & Young, 2006), imagine the cultural variances between salutations, closings, subject lines, attachments, and body content. Email is the quintessential generic hybrid genre, or as the authors of this article think of it, a chameleon genre, capable of masquerading as other genres as the rhetorical situation demands. For example, an email can be a report or simply deliver a report; it can be a proposal or simply deliver a proposal. Email can be persuasive or narrative or informative; it can be conversational or formal; it can pick up where other communication modes have dropped off. As the present study has shown, email can do all of that and more. Though we, as composition instructors, are not showing the intricacies of this hybrid genre to our students—the very people who will enter the workforce and be labeled incompetent, lest we, and presumably other instructors beyond our campus, revise our approach to the teaching of genre. After all, we are not teaching email as a chameleon genre, and our textbooks certainly are not either.

In closing, our study answers our first two research questions rather convincingly, finding that writing skills are quite important to the local job market, and perceived writing ability is essential to promotion and tenure amongst local companies, even more so than it was when the NCW completed their report. In seeking to learn whether we were teaching the right things, we found that educators may be teaching genre conventions too rigidly and not spending enough time highlighting the chameleon nature of email, specifically. Area employers value knowledge of genre conventions, but perhaps do not value, or are unaware, that those conventions vary from one worksite to another. Local employers do not use the same language used by practitioners and educators to talk about writing, which made it difficult to tease out what really mattered to them. Interviews, and the ability to follow-up with those respondents, made this easier than the survey alone would have. Still, we find that transitions for new employees might be made easier if composition instructors spend some time explaining how employers might name or perceive various conventions and prepare students for the amount of adaptation that will be necessary, not just once they land their first job but as they move from one workplace to another over the course of their careers. Finally, our plan, then, is to adjust our own professional writing curriculum to more accurately align with the expectations of our students’ future employers and use respondent data to directly illustrate these points. Further, the authors believe professional and technical writing instructors would do well to prepare students for the chameleon nature of workplace email expectations. In addition, we plan to encourage our local employment sites to name their own conventions more explicitly, by including sample company documents in hiring materials, thereby recognizing writing is far more than a stable skill to be learned sometime prior to graduation. In the classroom, we will encourage our students to identify the role of writing in an evolving workplace culture, and we call upon the workplace experts to both name what they know about their own evolving workplace writing and to share that information with their new hires as a facet of workplace culture.

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About the Authors

Patricia Welsh Droz is Assistant Professor of Writing and Linguistics at University of Houston-Clear Lake, where she teaches first-year writing, writing for the social sciences, language & gender, and the sociolinguistics of writing. Since 2018, she and Dr. Jacobs have co-directed the UHCL First-Year Writing program. Patricia’s research interests include gender and workplace communication, first-year writing, and computer-mediated discourse. She was the 2017–2018 co-recipient of the Marilyn Mieszkuc Professorship in Women’s and Gender Studies for her corpus linguistic work on Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state emails. She is available at droz@uhcl.edu.

Lorie Stagg Jacobs is Assistant Professor of Writing at University of Houston-Clear Lake, where she teaches first-year and professional writing courses. She is also the Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines Coordinator, advancing development and leadership of writing-focused faculty professional development seminars campus-wide. She and Patricia are the current co-directors of First-Year Writing. Lorie’s research interests include discipline- and profession-specific writing curriculum, labor issues in academia, first-year composition, and student persistence. She is available at jacobsl@uhcl.edu.

Manuscript received 21 August 2017, revised 10 November 2017; accepted 14 November 2017.

Appendix A: Stage 1: Interview Questions

1. What are the sorts of writing you do on a day-to-day basis?

2. What are the sorts of writing you do on a regular, but periodic basis?

3. When was the last time you developed /wrote a proposal for the workplace? Was it solicited, or unsolicited?

4. How often does your company produce (list of possible documents)? Then discuss those specific types of documents named.

5. If you were hiring a newly graduated UHCL Business major for an entry-level management position, what sort of writing would that person be expected to produce?

6. When hiring for any position in your firm, how much do applicant’s communication skills play a role in your decision?

7. Does your company ever pay for training (or re-training) of communication skills? If so, how much $$ per yr? How much time do you spend correcting or addressing writing deficiencies?

8. Based on your personal knowledge of the most recently hired new graduates, what would you say is the most wide-spread “problem” with their written communication skills? Please describe. For example…

Understanding how audience and purpose shape communications
Understanding /using standard formats (letter, memo, report)
Understanding /using correct /best mediums for communications
Understanding /using standard organization strategies for delivering different types of news
Sentence-level skills (grammar, punctuation, etc.)
Other:

9. How important are written and oral communication skills in your hiring process?

10. How important are written and oral communication skills in promotion and tenure?

Demographics

1. Your position? (Only record level, such as “Director” rather than “Director of Sales.”)

2. Are you ever charged with hiring of any positions? If so _________________

3. Company size? – (See SBA.gov)

According to the SBA:

Manufacturing: Maximum number of employees may range from 500 to 1500
Wholesaling: Maximum number of employees may range from 100 to 500
Services: Annual receipts may not exceed $2.5 to $21.5 million
Retailing: Annual receipts may not exceed $5.0 to $21.0 million
General and Heavy Construction: Annual receipts may not exceed $13.5 to $17 million
Special Trade Construction: Annual receipts may not exceed $7 million
Agriculture: Annual receipts may not exceed $0.5 to $9.0 million
[Source: SBA’s definition of a small business concern]

Appendix B: Stage 2: Workplace Writing Survey

Consent request

The Writing Program of State University, in cooperation with Career Services, seeks your input on writing in your workplace. We would like to understand the value of writing skills to employers and co-workers, and to what degree communication factors into employee productivity and advancement. We are especially interested in the opinions of employers and managers in the local economy. Your valuable feedback can help reinforce and shape our writing curriculum, which in turn will better prepare students for the writing and communication expectations of area businesses. At UHCL, preparing students for the demands of their future workplace is a top priority. We strive to revise and improve our curriculum to keep pace with a competitive job market. We may share the information we collect with university colleagues and administrators, other professionals in the field, at professional conferences, or publish it in aggregate. Your response is anonymous and no identifying information will be collected.

Please keep in mind your confidentiality will be kept to the degree permitted by the technology being used. No guarantees can be made regarding the interception of data sent via the Internet by any third parties. This survey should take only 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Please indicate your consent to participate below. Should you have any questions or comments on our research, please send inquiries to jacobsl@uhcl.edu. Thank you in advance for your help! Sincerely, Drs. Lorie Jacobs and Patricia Droz Assistant Professors of Writing University of Houston, Clear Lake

◯ I consent to participate and would like to continue to the survey. (1)

◯ I do not consent. (2)

[Skip To: End of Survey If = I do not consent. (2)]

Survey questions

Q1 What are the sorts of writing you do on a day-to-day basis?

Q2 What are the sorts of writing you do on a regular, but periodic basis?

Q3 If you were hiring a recent UHCL graduate for an entry-level position, what sort of writing would that person be expected to produce?

Q4 Whether stated implicitly or explicitly, how many employees in your company have job descriptions with responsibility for writing/communication (e.g. technical reports, memos, annual reports, external communications, etc.)?

< 25% (1) About 25 % (2) About 50% (3) About 75% (4) > 75% (5)
Professional (1)
Hourly (2)

Q5 How often would poorly written application materials affect the hiring process?

Almost never (1) Occasionally (2) Frequently (3) Almost always (4)
Professional (1)
Hourly (2)

Q6 When hiring for a position that requires writing skills, how does your company usually assess an applicant’s writing ability? (Please check all that apply)

▢ Writing sample provided by applicant (1)

▢ Writing test taken during interview (2)

▢ Review of coursework on resumé (3)

▢ Impressions based on cover letter /written application (4)

▢ Other (5) ________________________________________________

Q7 Based on your personal knowledge of the typical recently hired new graduate, what would you say is the most wide-spread “problem” with written communication skills?

◯ Understanding how audience and purpose shape communications, such as level of formality or use of expected conventions. (1)

◯ Understanding /using the formats and modes (letter, memo, report, presentation, Tweet) expected for specific types of communication (2)

◯ Understanding /using logical organization strategies in communications. (3)

◯ Sentence-level skills (grammar, punctuation, etc.) (4)

◯ Other (5) ________________________________________________

Q8 Please indicate how frequently each form of communication is used in your company.

Almost never (1) Occasionally (2) Frequently (3) Almost always (4)
Social Media (1)
E-mail (2)
Internal and external correspondence (e.g. Memos and Letters) (3)
Oral presentations with slides /visuals (4)
Oral presentations without slides/visuals (5)
Informational reports (6)
Formal reports (7)
Technical reports (8)
Other (9)

Q9 Effective written communication can have a number of different characteristics. In your company, how important are each of these characteristics?

Extremely important (1) Very important (2) Moderately important (3) Slightly important (4) Not at all important (5)
Accuracy (1)
Clarity (2)
Conciseness (3)
Technical precision (4)
Visual appeal (5)
Spelling, punctuation, and grammar (6)
Other (7)

Q10 To what extent does your company take effective formal communication skills into consideration when making promotion decisions?

Very little (1) Somewhat (2) A lot (3) Essential (4)
Professional (1)
Hourly (2)

Q11 Share a story about a time someone’s written or presentation skills were memorably great or memorably awful. What essential skill were they demonstrating or lacking?

Q12 If you could tell writing teachers one thing that new hires are doing well or poorly with their writing and communication, what would it be?

Q13 What is your organization’s primary business activity? (Select one only)

◯ Aerospace (1)

◯ Banking /Finance /Accounting (2)

◯ Insurance /Real Estate /Legal (3)

◯ Federal Government (including military) (4)

◯ State /Local Government (5)

◯ Medical /Dental /Health care (6)

◯ Transportation /Utilities (7)

◯ Construction /Architecture/ Engineering (8)

◯ Wholesale /Retail/Distribution (9)

◯ Education (10)

◯ Research /Development Lab (11)

◯ Business Services /Consultant (12)

◯ Manufacturing (13)

◯ Wholesale and retail trade (14)

◯ Oil & Gas Industry (15)

◯ Services (16)

◯ Other (17) ________________________________________________

Q14 Total number of employees inside the U.S. on January 1, 2017?

◯ < 10 (1)

◯ 10 – 19 (2)

◯ 20 – 49 (3)

◯ 50 – 99 (4)

◯ 100 – 499 (5)

◯ 500 – 999 (6)

◯ 1000 – 4,999 (7)

◯ 5,000 – 9,999 (8)

◯ > 10,000 (9)

Q15 On average, how many new employees were hired yearly inside the U.S. in the past 5 years? (January 2012 – present)

◯ < 10 (1)

◯ 10 – 19 (2)

◯ 20 – 49 (3)

◯ 50 – 99 (4)

◯ 100 – 499 (5)

◯ > 1,000 (6)

Q16 Total number of employees outside the U.S. on January 1, 2017?

◯ < 10 (1)

◯ 10 – 19 (2)

◯ 20 – 49 (3)

◯ 50 – 99 (4)

100 – 499 (5)

◯ 500 – 999 (6)

◯ 1,000 – 4,999 (7)

◯ 5,000 – 9,999 (8)

◯ > 10,000 (9)

Q17 On average, how many new employees were hired yearly outside the U.S. in the past 5 years? (January 2012 – present)

◯ < 10 (1)

◯ 10 – 19 (2)

◯ 20 – 49 (3)

◯ 50 – 99 (4)

◯ 100 – 499 (5)

◯ 500 – 999 (6)

◯ > 1,000 (7)

Q18 What is your primary job title? (Select one only)

◯ CEO /CFO / President (1)

◯ Vice President (2)

◯ Director (3)

◯ Manager (4)

◯ Internet manager (5)

◯ Human Resources Manager (6)

◯ E-Business (7)

◯ Webmaster/Web Developer (8)

◯ Supervisor (9)

◯ Technical Consultant (10)

◯ Recruiter (11)

◯ Other Management (12) ________________________________________________

◯ Other Corporate Staff (13) ______________________________________________

◯ Other Staff (14) ________________________________________________

Appendix C: Specific Genres Reported by Respondents

Figure 11. Genres reported by respondents as writing performed daily in response to Q1

Named genre frequency, Q.1 Count Named by
Email 19 73%
Letters 8 31%
Definitions/ procedures/ manuals 7 27%
Reports 7 27%
Job descriptions/ performance evaluations 7 27%
Memos 4 15%
Marketing materials 3 12%
Social medoa 2 8%
Proposals 1 4%

Figure 12. Genres reported by respondents as writing performed regularly but less frequently

Named genre frequency, Q.2 Count Named by
Reports 10 38%
Policy 7 27%
Correspondence 6 23%
Plans or procedures 6 23%
Job descriptions/ performance evaluations 5 19%
Letters 4 15%
Speeches or presentations 4 15%
Proposals 3 12%
Memos 3 12%
Marketing 2 8%
News/ announcements / white papers 2 8%
Email 1 4%