Reading, writing and essential skills

How to promote greater literacy — and understanding — at work.

Considering that nearly half of all Canadians are deficient in one area of literacy or another, chances are high that every business has at least some employees struggling to communicate. But don't go rushing off to hire an ESL tutor or schedule mandatory remedial classes before learning these five important lessons.

Study hard.

Find out why your employees aren't doing what they're supposed to before implementing any kind of training regimen. Maybe there's a stumbling block because they can't read, or maybe it's because they don't comprehend what's being asked of them. Perhaps they just don't want to understand, or are afraid of the consequences to them or their colleagues. Figure out where things are breaking down and why.

Take instruction.

Get everybody onboard by forming a committee with management and employee reps. “It's important that there be input from the various levels of an organization when you come across problems,” says workplace consultant Mary Ellen Belfiore. A side benefit of such an approach is that if employees have a say in what will be taught and how, they'll help promote the program.

Think straight.

The use of industry jargon or complex terminology impedes understanding, but it can also be used to cover up one's own lack of ability. “People use jargon to establish their authority and power, but the fact is you're not communicating much to those who are supposed to be implementing these standards,” says Belfiore. Use materials found in the workplace, so employees can see tangible results.

Keep it quiet.

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind,” wrote Plato. For any literacy program to be successful, it should be voluntary, as well as confidential. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to not being able to read, so employees have to know their job — or reputation — isn't at stake. It's also a bad idea to call your offering a “literacy program.” Use “essential skills” or “workplace learning” instead.

Show some trust.

“Nobody asks what's the ROI of sending your managers off to some two-day retreat,” says Brigid Hayes, director of labour with the Ottawa-based Canadian Labour and Business Centre. “But for some reason when it comes to blue-collar workers, it's as if there is a fear that they're going to take advantage of something.” Show your commitment by scheduling sessions at least partly on company time. Classes at Dofasco, for example, are split equally between company and personal time.