Taking L&D Back to Basics

International bood day

With International Literacy Day being celebrated on 8th September, we wondered; would you know how to support an employee if you found out they struggled to read and write? 

It might seem like a ridiculous question, after all how many adults do you know that can’t read or write?  Maybe you don’t know any personally, but it is estimated that 16% of adults in the UK are classed as ‘functionally illiterate’ meaning they can read and write to a very basic level, but likely wouldn’t pass an English GCSE exam, and have less literary ability than the average 11 year old. 

For these individuals one of the biggest issues they will face is finding employment, and being able to succeed in the workplace.  Not only will the actual lack of ability be a serious barrier, another problem may be low confidence.  For many individuals who do struggle in this area, they have a range of other skills and abilities that they could easily utilise to do well in the workplace.  Unfortunately, because they likely struggled at school due to literacy problems, they often leave education feeling frustrated – not necessarily by the challenges they face in reading and writing, but rather by the finite views of other people who presume that this limitation affects their overall ability to do anything well.  This also often contributes to a sense of embarrassment, especially if they feel they are the only one having any difficulty. 

When it comes to finding work these issues can be a major hurdle, some may never find employment as a result, while some may successfully land a job and then really struggle to satisfy the needs of the role.  Unfortunately this can lead to negative impressions of an individual, who may be viewed as lazy or unengaged, when in reality they may simply be coping poorly with certain elements of the job.  Ideally in this situation an employee should feel empowered to inform their managers of the issue, but in reality this is rarely the case.  Despite their ability in other areas, many individuals will feel embarrassed if they struggle with reading or writing, and look to avoid any potential ridicule by denying the problem.

What can employers do?

The first thing businesses need to do is establish a positive and supportive workplace culture; without this no employee is ever going to come forward with any problem no matter what it is.  But there are also specific strategies businesses can put in place to help people address any difficulties they may have with literacy:

  • Assess your recruitment procedure – many organisations now included literacy and numeracy in their screening processes, and this alone can prevent people from passing to the next stage of recruitment, even if they are fully equipped otherwise to do a job well.  If literacy is a necessary aspect of a role this will obviously have to be included, but if it is simply a screening tool then companies should offer individuals the opportunity to disclose any difficulties they have, and take this into consideration when reviewing their application.  Aside from being a fairer approach it also establishes an open dialogue from the start, so hopefully employees don’t feel they have to hide anything
  • One to one supervision – this should be a standard part of all employee management, but becomes even more important for those who are finding something difficult, whether it’s literacy or anything else.  Ideally it will give the individual an appropriate opportunity to inform their manager of their difficulties; unfortunately this doesn’t always happen, for example if they deny any problems for fear of criticism or ridicule.  However it also allows managers the chance to raise any concerns they may have noticed, and if the issue is approached in a sensitive and supportive way, can lead to mutually beneficial solutions being identified
  • Training – this may require external training, or time set aside within work to provide tuition to the employee, but whatever method is chosen, it should be tailored to the needs and preferences of the individual where possible to have the maximum benefit.  By working with the employee to decide what is right for them it helps reduce anxiety and promote better outcomes
  • Peer support – while training is useful to help build specific skills, peer support will be vital in building confidence.  By encouraging employees to work together and support one another, not only will this benefit any employees who may be struggling with issues such as literacy, it will also benefit the team as a whole, creating collaborative and supported learning environments
  • Praise their other abilities – if you were to discover an employee has trouble with reading and writing you might turn your focus to helping them address this, and while that is important, it shouldn’t become the only focus.  It is also hugely important that employers continue to recognise the valuable contribution that the individual already offers the business, and work to also build on their strengths as well as support them to address any weaknesses such as literacy problems

If you have any concerns about your employees literacy abilities, then taking the time to address the issue is the only way it can ever be resolved.  Difficulties in reading and writing shouldn’t be a barrier to people doing well at work, and with the right support from their employer, it doesn’t have to be.

For more information, download ‘A Practical Guide for Identifying Learning & Development Needs’ from the Thales L&D Insight Hub.