On a recent business trip to Texas I was flipping through the Fort Worth Business Press and came across an article about workplace literacy. It pointed out that in one Texas county one in FIVE adults cannot read well enough to succeed at the fourth grade level. So no wonder this translates into problems in the workplace. As the article stated: “Though not widely publicized, one of the biggest issues affecting job growth in our community is workplace literacy.”
It’s absolutely true. If people can’t communicate clearly in writing, the limitations for individual and organizational growth are significant. Sometimes it’s as simple as repeated (and usually common) mistakes in written communication that impede progress. Whether it’s confusion over whether that word I just used twice should really be “weather,” or if it’s the old “it’s” vs. “its” dilemma, grammatical mistakes really diminish the potential for growth.
Now, you probably don’t have too much trouble with weather vs. whether; the one with the “a” may refer to how warm it’s going to be today (very, I hope). But grammatical mistakes such as when to use “its” and when to use “it’s” are astonishingly common. (For the record, “it’s” is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” An example of correct usage: “Sandra is hoping it’s going to be really warm soon. A warm summer day has its charm.)
And literacy in the 21st century is about more than just reading and writing. It also means things like problem solving, and understanding technology, something a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Literacy Gets A New Job Emphasis underscores.
The truth is the issues in all areas of literacy may not be “widely publicized,” but most Canadian workers are aware that there are problems. A survey by Ipsos in 2009 states that 72 per cent of working Canadians think the level of adult literacy is far less than ideal. Even though employees may be willing to acknowledge issues with literacy in an anonymous survey, it’s another thing to admit to their boss that they’re concerned.
Think about something that doesn’t come easily to you, or a public situation that went badly and to this day makes you feel embarrassed. In my case, I remember my first day as a student teacher in front of a classroom of children. What added to my fear and nervousness was that their teacher was in the classroom watching – I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exposed. I’m sure you have something similar in your experience. So if you are in charge of a group of people in your workplace, you need to be very sensitive. Do some discreet observation to discover if there are literacy issues, and perhaps even some soul searching to admit to some of your own!
Margaret Eaton, president ABC Life Literacy Canada, suggests in the Globe and Mail article that the following behaviors may indicate literacy problems:
- Employees avoid training sessions or fail external training programs.
- Excellent employees continually turn down promotion opportunities.
- Change initiatives often fail or are slow to be implemented.
- Staff make excuses. For example, “I’ll read it later,” or “I forgot my glasses,” when put in situations where reading or writing is required.
- Employee absenteeism and turnover are high.
If any of the above sounds familiar, your first instinct may be to speak to the individuals within your organization who may be having problems. I urge you to tread carefully though – it’s a delicate matter.
As a consultant I’ve found it may be easier for employees to talk one-to-one with someone from outside the company. People are much more likely to open up about their concerns without their boss or their colleagues in the same room. Even then I’ve found some people are defensive or resistant to the idea that they might need help. When that happens, I walk them through a careful series of guided questions that usually reveal their issues with literacy – without embarrassing the individual.
Ultimately that’s also one of the reasons I’ve found online learning works well with improving literacy. Instead of sitting in a roomful of people having your learning challenges made public, you are able to maintain a sense of privacy and dignity. And that’s something we all would all like to have – and that we all deserve.