Workplace Literacy: Are Your Employees
Making the Grade?

by Christina Morfeld

Chances are that you have at least one employee who performs below acceptable levels. Perhaps he or she makes seemingly careless errors, consistently fails to follow instructions, or doesn't comply with your organization's "continuous improvement" requirements.

Whatever the case, you've probably attributed causes to these failings: laziness, lack of commitment, personal problems, or maybe even outright defiance. And, if you have considered the possibility of a skills deficit, in all likelihood you assumed that it is task-related.

It would occur to very few of us that these troubled employees may, in fact, lack some very basic skills such as reading, writing, and math that we tend to take for granted. But without those as a foundation, how can they possibly be expected to master the higher-level competencies that their jobs require of them?

For those of you who think that "illiteracy can't happen here," consider these statistics from a 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey:

  • Over 20 percent of adults can't read well enough to complete an application.
  • Another 25 percent, while able to read at a somewhat higher level, still lack the ability to function successfully on the job and in society.

That's almost half of the population!

There are countless reasons why a person may be functionally illiterate. Some of the more common ones are:

  • English is not her native language.
  • He may have dropped out of school at an early age.
  • She may have completed her education, but is having difficulty transferring the skills learned in an academic setting to the workplace.
  • He may have learning disabilities that prevent him from processing information effectively.

It is important to understand that the absence of these fundamental skills does not mean that a person is unintelligent or worthless to an organization. As a matter of fact, many of these very same individuals were well-respected workers who hid their "secret" for years. Recent changes to the business environment, however, have made it increasingly difficult for them to keep pace.

Gone are the days when unskilled labor could easily find and succeed at a job. An employee that once worked an assembly line is now expected to program and monitor the machine that has replaced him. The quality initiatives so prevalent in today's manufacturing environments require that workers track data, calculate deviations, and report results. And trends such as team-based models and participative management have pushed decision-making and problem-solving responsibilities down to the rank-and-file.

It is our responsibility, as employers and as a society, to help these folks adapt to the changing needs of the workplace. Yes, it can be costly to an organization, but the rewards tend to far outweigh the expense. The results of an ABC Canada Literacy Foundation study speak for themselves. Of organizations with a basic skills program in place:

  • 97% reported increased participant self-confidence.
  • 87% reported more competent use of technology.
  • 85% reported better labor relations.
  • 84% reported higher work quality.
  • 82% reported improved health and safety.
  • 79% reported enhanced workplace productivity.
  • 73% reported greater work effort.

Take a moment to think about what the boost in self-confidence alone can mean for an employee. He or she will be more likely to:

  • Take initiative and ownership of his or her work.
  • Attempt to handle unexpected challenges on his or her own, freeing up management to focus on more strategic issues.
  • Feel more comfortable being an active participant in staff meetings and other company activities.
  • Cope effectively with new demands placed on him or her by the ever-evolving workplace.

Literacy programs do far more than teach the so-called "3 Rs" (reading, writing, and 'rithmetic); they lay the groundwork for honing higher-order skills such as information management, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication. Most importantly, however, participants learn how to learn and are often inspired to set out on personal improvement campaigns as a result.

Still not convinced? Here are a few more typical outcomes:

  • Increased loyalty
    Helping your staff members improve themselves will result in heightened allegiance.

  • Enhanced community relations
    Because many of your employees undoubtedly live within the vicinity of their worksite, your efforts will spread good will in the neighborhoods within which you do business.

  • Improved "bottom line"
    Better worker performance generally translates into increased customer retention, stronger market presence, and higher profits.

An organization has several options for addressing a perceived literacy deficit, but must first determine the extent of the problem. Interviews, surveys, and observation are generally effective needs assessment techniques but must be conducted with care given the nature and sensitivity of the situation. Additional practical approaches to consider are:

  • Asking managers to quantify (but not name) employees who might benefit from a basic skills program; and
  • Offering voluntary, confidential assessment tests.

It is vital that your initiative not give the impression of being remedial in nature. Avoid describing it as a "literacy" or "basic skills" program. Instead, use terminology such as "job skills," "skill building," and "workplace education." And be sure to position it as part of the organization's overall training strategy. Singling it out will only serve to alienate employees who fear being stigmatized.

Assessment (and subsequent participation) should never be mandated, nor should an employee's job depend on it.

If you find that you have too few candidates to justify a corporate program, put interested individuals in touch with a local community college, adult education program, or nonprofit agency such as Literacy Volunteers of America. There is also the option of joining or, if none exists, forming a consortium of local businesses with similar training needs. Increasing the pool of learners and combining resources allows you to consider alternatives that offer greater opportunity to influence content than public offerings.

If the deficiency you have identified in your organization is a large-scale one, your next step is to determine whether to outsource the training or develop and deliver the curriculum in-house. A word of caution: Basic skills education is entirely different than other types of workplace training, and even the most seasoned instructional designers and trainers may find themselves ill-equipped for such an endeavor. Fortunately, many community colleges and literacy agencies will work with you to develop a custom program, as will consultants who specialize in training these essential skills. The Southeastern Fairfield County (Connecticut) chapter of LVA, for example, offers a comprehensive service that includes:

  • Task analysis;
  • Skills assessment;
  • ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction;
  • Data transfer training (working with numbers by hand, keyboard, and computer); and
  • Computer-assisted learning that delivers personalized lessons based on individual needs.

In a paper published by Canada's National Literacy Secretariat, author Sue Folinsbee recommends selecting a training provider with:

  • Proven experience working with adults in learning situations;
  • A demonstrated understanding of workplace issues, including management/labor relations;
  • The ability to relate to and gain the confidence of management, employees, and if applicable unions;
  • The capability to design tailor-made programs based on identified needs; and
  • A willingness to be flexible in terms of program design and when/where classes will be delivered.

While these are useful criteria against which to evaluate any outside trainer, the delicateness with which basic skills training must be handled demands that they be met if the program is to be successful.

Literacy training need not be conducted in a classroom setting; one-on-one tutoring is another possibility. Besides facilitating more individualized instruction, the increased privacy may be a motivator to those who would otherwise be too embarrassed to participate. You can opt to use college- or agency-provided tutors or recruit and arrange training for volunteers from your own staff. The latter approach broadens the scope of employees benefiting from the program by enabling in-house tutors to experience the rich intrinsic rewards that helping others often brings.

No matter what method you choose, you must publicize your offerings in a way that reaches your target audience. Strategies include posters, flyers, memos distributed with paychecks, and informal worksite walkthroughs during which the program is promoted. Be sure to keep any written communication simple perhaps even limiting it to the program name and contact telephone number and consider translating it into the languages most commonly spoken by your staff.

Employees must be assured that the program has full support at all levels of the organization and its participants are treated with dignity and respect. One way to achieve this is to design instruction that is immediately relevant. By all means, avoid the childish "Dick and Jane" approach! Use work-related learning material such as health insurance forms, employee handbooks, procedural instructions, and equipment instruction manuals instead. Don't hesitate to address other so-called "life skills" such as interpreting maps, balancing a checkbook, and reading a bus schedule. While not directly related to the workplace, the aptitudes required by these activities are transferable to a variety of situations not to mention the fact that your employees will appreciate your interest in helping them achieve personal goals as well as professional ones.

Another way to demonstrate the high value you place on your staff is to involve them in program development. After all, who better to serve as "content experts" during task analysis than the workers themselves?

Employing complementary non-training solutions such as rewriting documentation using clearer language; redesigning forms; creating flowcharts, checklists, and other job aids; using visuals instead of text where applicable; and breaking down complex tasks into smaller ones is one more way to reassure employees that you are not pointing fingers. By acknowledging that other factors may be detracting from performance and by taking responsibility for fixing them you are sending a strong message that your intention is to improve overall organizational functioning, not to call attention to individual weaknesses.

Additional "best practices" for literacy programs include:

  • The use of a variety of instructional methods and media to appeal to a wide range of learning styles and preferences;
  • Competency-based pre- and post-testing;
  • Frequent and ongoing feedback to learners; and
  • Celebrated accomplishments.

The labor market is shrinking. Twenty percent of our future labor force is in school with the remaining 80 percent already on the job. What do these statistics mean for us? Simply put, 4 out of 5 workers will be unable to develop newly-required workplace skills unless we step in to help. And, if I did my job well, this article has convinced you that implementing such a program is well worth the time, effort, and expense.

Christina Morfeld is a writer for and president of Affinity Business Communications, a provider of high-quality instructional design, technical writing, and content development solutions. Whether writing to instruct, inform, or persuade, our work is reader-focused, benefits-oriented, and results-driven. Visit our website at to learn how we can increase your firm's sales and effectiveness!

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001-2002 Christina Morfeld and Affinity Business Communications, LLC.
Originally published by All rights reserved.

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