Word To The Wise

Think illiteracy is a problem of the past? There's a reason some workers avoid the written word. Here's how you can help.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the June 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Although the majority of Americans are literate, that doesn't mean illiteracy isn't a workplace obstacle. Productivity is sagging, errors are skyrocketing, and many problems can be attributed directly to employee inadequacies with the written word. Eunice Askov, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, unravels this paradox: "Very few people are illiterate if that means they can't read or write at all. But millions face serious challenges keeping up with the demand to read and write on the job."

How many millions? More than 40 million Americans 16 years of age and older have only rudimentary reading and writing skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That's how many qualify at Level 1 in a five-level scoring of literacy. Level 1 means an individual can sign his or her name but can't make sense of a benefits write-up, reliably read a map, or accurately fill out a Social Security card application.

Those shortcomings can lead to big trouble on the job. A statistic from the Washington, DC-based National Institute for Literacy puts the finding in focus: More than 60 percent of front-line workers in goods-producing businesses have difficulty applying information from a text to a required task.

"About 20 percent of adults lack the skills to be fully productive," confirms Virginia Watson, director of the Michigan Adult Learning and Technology Center in Mt. Pleasant. Watson explains that while not being able to read or write at all used to be the definition of illiteracy, today, "functional illiteracy" means a person lacks the skills needed to perform his or her job.

How can this be in a nation that has long enforced compulsory education? "At least some of this problem rests with the educational system," contends Watson. Another factor is the steady influx of immigrants from third-world nations, some of whom have had little, if any, formal education.

But the most likely cause is that jobs have changed, explains Askov. "People who could have adequately handled their jobs," she says, "are now having trouble coping with new demands."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@mail.entrepreneurmag.com

Whole New World

Corporate restructuring has played a large role in the changing business environment. Even a decade ago, most report-writing, for instance, was handled by front-line supervisors. "Many of those tasks have been pushed down to workers. They're having to read, write and use sophisticated technology, and they don't have the foundation for it," says Larry Mikulecky, a professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Are you assigning these types of tasks to lower-level employees? Although this puts responsibility at the level of the workers doing the jobs, an unanticipated byproduct is that the increased sophistication of the workplace has pushed literacy front and center, says Watson. "More business leaders recognize that literacy has become a workplace issue that impacts productivity," he says.

Businesses are discovering more functionally illiterate employees nowadays. While the number of illiterate workers hasn't soared, in an economy with low unemployment rates, employers are often hiring workers they might have ignored just a few years ago. In addition, the federal welfare-to-work initiative, which aims to get welfare recipients into paying jobs, has made more employers aware of illiteracy as an issue, says John Doyle of the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, DC. Doyle cites studies that peg illiteracy among welfare recipients at upwards of 38 percent. "More companies will employ these people in the future," he says.

Surprisingly, you may not even realize which employees are functionally illiterate. "It can be difficult to [detect]," says Askov. "People are good at covering it."

"A great deal of shame and fear is attached to illiteracy," says Marsha L. Tait, national president of the Literacy Volunteers of America Inc. "People are afraid if it becomes known, they'll lose their jobs."

The best strategy for discovering employee illiteracy is to be watchful. Signs to look out for: workers who consistently dodge reading or writing on the job, or those who make a string of goofs they wouldn't have made if they'd read the instructions. And don't forget the issue is inadequate skills, not no skills at all. To a large degree, this is a judgment call: If you feel an employee is having problems, you're probably right.

Get With The Program

Should you simply find ways to work around an employee's illiteracy? In most businesses, that's not a long-term solution--at least not with job complexity intensifying at every level. The shrewder solution is to train the worker. "It's cheaper in the long run than firing and rehiring," says Joe O'Connor, a human resources consultant with MHR Consultants in Chandler, Arizona. "You'll also see a payoff in worker loyalty. Help an employee learn to read, and that employee will remember [your efforts]."

Finding programs to help illiterate workers is usually easy, adds O'Connor. Literacy Volunteers of America Inc., for instance, has a nationwide network of affiliates that arrange one-on-one tutoring or small group instruction for illiterate adults at no cost to participants. In many communities, too, evening adult education programs offer literacy classes at nominal fees.

Although there are many programs to help the illiterate, that doesn't mean the process is easy. Substantial time is involved in effecting a cure. "An estimated 100 hours of one-on-one tutoring is required to achieve a grade-level gain," says Mikulecky. And many workers will need to gain a few grade levels--meaning they'll need 200 or more hours of study.

Summoning the will to see this program through to its completion can be tough. "But the employer can help make it happen," says O'Connor.

How? A key is to provide incentives to the employee. "[Workers will be] embarrassed by their illiteracy," O'Connor says. "They have to fight to overcome that, and rewards will make it easier." Paid time off to take a class or perhaps even just a pat on the back, says O'Connor, can mean a lot to an employee struggling to learn new skills.

When helping an employee improve his or her literacy skills, sensitivity on your part is a must. "Never talk about a worker's illiteracy with any of his or her co-workers," says O'Connor. "Confidentiality is critical."

A third step: "Create a safe environment," O'Connor advises. "Tell the employee his or her job is safe and add that you want this employee to participate in a literacy program because you value him or her and want to prepare that person to achieve still higher goals."

Recognize, too, that you don't just take these steps once--you'll likely need to continue to reassure this worker throughout the many months of classes he or she may need to achieve a satisfactory level of literacy. That's a big chore on your part, but know that what the employee is doing is tougher still.

The payoffs of helping an employee gain literacy justify the investment of effort on your part, promises Askov. "Absenteeism drops, retention rates improve, productivity increases and employee morale is raised," she says.

Beyond the economic reasons, "It feels good helping a person learn to read," says O'Connor, who logged several years as a volunteer literacy teacher. "You're helping a person, benefiting society and contributing to your business's bottom line. That's why I always tell small-business owners this is an investment they'll be very glad they made."


  • Literacy Volunteers of America Inc. can arrange literacy training at no cost to participants. For more information, call (888) HELP-LVA or visit the organization online at http://www.literacyvolunteers.org.

Double Check

Jacquelyn Lynn

All reference-checking firms are not created equal.

Do professional reference checkers tell you all you need to know about prospective employees? Before retaining an outside firm, do some checking of your own, says Peter LeVine, president of Peter LeVine Associates Inc., a professional reference-checking firm based in Framingham, Massachusetts. LeVine offers these tips for evaluating reference-checking firms:

  • Ask for and check references. Just because it checks up on people doesn't mean the company is on the up and up.
  • Ask what sets the firm apart from its competitors.
  • Find out how it gets information. Does it simply check databases, credit files, court records and drivers' license files? Does it also conduct personal interviews?
  • Ask who does the research and what their experience and background are. Is the work done by a clerk or an investigator?
  • Will you receive full transcripts of interviews or a summary? Although full transcripts take more time to evaluate, LeVine believes they provide a better foundation on which to make your hiring decision.
  • Is it up to date on employment issues? Be sure the checker incorporates topical issues in employment law--such as sexual harassment, disabilities and workplace violence--in its research.

Contact Sources

MHR Consultants, (602) 917-9866, http://www.mhr.consultants.com

Peter LeVine Associates Inc., (508) 370-4233, http://www.levinereferencecheck.com

More from Entrepreneur
Our Franchise Advisors are here to help you throughout the entire process of building your franchise organization!
  1. Schedule a FREE one-on-one session with a Franchise Advisor
  2. Choose one of our programs that matches your needs, budget, and timeline
  3. Launch your new franchise organization
Make sure you’re covered if an employee gets injured at work by
  • Providing us with basic information about your business
  • Verifying details about your business with one of our specialists
  • Speaking with an agent who is specifically suited to insure your business
Use code CAREER2021 through 4/17/21 to save on our collection of recommended career books, including:
  • Career Rehab
  • Entrepreneur Voices on Careers
  • The New Employee Manual
  • And more

Latest on Entrepreneur