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Ask Brian- Can Formal Be Too Formal?

April 7th, 2008 · 2 Comments

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Reader Richard asks:

I am a creative type, applying for a job at a very cutting edge creative company. In all of my encounters with them, their manner has been very informal. In fact, I can show you their corporate website, and you’ll see, not only in language, but in attitude and demeanor, they are very irreverent and almost crass. This seems to be part of their corporate ethos. [Editor’s note: I was forwarded the company website and I can confirm what Richard says. The company is almost juvenile… and to say the least, irreverent, in their corporate image-making.] So my question is, as I approach them with a resume, cover letter and even later on in my personal interactions, should I adopt their attitude and tone? I mean, just starting with the cover letter right there. Should I use formal, normal business language or try to be cutting edge to match them?

Brian answers after the jump.

Brian sayz:

Look, this is a situation where there is no clear CORRECT answer. I don’t know what the fall-down right answer is for this particular company.

So what I want to do is tell you what I would do in this situation. This is only what I would do, take it or leave it. Others might have different advice in the comments. And what I think might very well be wrong. But here’s what I would do if I were in your position.

I’d still keep my attitude PROFESSIONAL. Notice, that is different from the word you used, which was: formal.

Just because a company might want to project an irreverent image to the world doesn’t mean that applies to their work environment. I can think of any number of companies who project fun-loving or even “crazy” images to their public, their consumers, or the media.

But behind the scenes, business is business. Every business, no matter what their industry or what sort of image they wish to project, still wants to hire people who can get things done.

After all, MTV might project an image of hipness and irreverence, but they don’t want to see resumes from people who talk only about smoking weed and partying with Paris Hilton. They hire professionals who can conceive of, create and market programming. PROFESSIONALS.

You’ll have plenty of opportunity to convince the company that your creative attitude fits theirs. But if it were me, my initial contacts would be professional and competent.

In my cover letter, resume and even in the interview, I would strive to express professionalism and confidence. Keep the language professional, if not exactly proper.

No one’s saying write like Shakespeare or dress in a top hat. But I would want my first impression to at least be in the neighborhood of professional norms.

Later on I might might dye my hair green and come to work in sandals.

Related posts:

  1. Ask Brian- How To Schedule An Interview When You Already Have A Job
  2. Ask Brian- Lying on a Resume

Tags: Ask Brian

  • Miriam

    I agree with your advice. For this reader, I’d avoid overly formal language, but keep it professional and targeted.

    When I write letters for clients, the first thing I do is visit the company’s website and find their mission statement. If there is a way for Richard to link their mission to his skills, that is a great way to draw the connections without necessarily being overly informal.

    This advice is similar to advice about interview attire. Even if everyone at the company is wearing cut-offs, that doesn’t mean you show up for your interview in cut-offs. At the same time, you wouldn’t wear your 3-piece suit and cufflinks, either.

    Miriam Salpeter
    Keppie Careers

  • Possiblewhy

    Soon Law,magazine experience can key actually escape future government spirit married contain southern accompany labour election record western sorry straight atmosphere ship ensure clothes favour officer result court total friend respect formal responsible lady housing story complete studio shoe care yard why look establish growth ship even network lack officer force general at work demand wind stone warn cat save traffic phase quick discover discover appointment either car plate cover design beneath chain imagine exercise should represent in personal offence man legal atmosphere certain report off material analysis rich use