Illiteracy & Its Effects in the American Workplace

Illiteracy can affect your career as well as the rest of your life.
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The ability to read is such a basic skill that you may not be able to imagine getting along without it. Yet, 93 million Americans have only basic or below basic literacy skills, according to the National Coalition for Literacy. No reading means no memos or e-mails at work -– although sometimes it would be nice to skip a lot of that required reading. But illiteracy also means no romance novels, no fashion magazines and no love letters from someone tall, dark and handsome.

Basic Literacy Skills

    It’s not surprising to find that people in jobs such as construction, service or transportation are more likely to have limited literacy skills, but the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that even in professional occupations, 3 percent of adults had reading, writing and comprehension skills below the basic level. Imagine – doctors, lawyers and CEOs whose literacy skills are relatively poor. The National Adult Literary Survey estimates that workers' lack of basic literacy skills costs American businesses more than $60 billion a year -- definitely not small change.

Communications and Instructions

    It’s very difficult to communicate with people who can’t read well, especially in a large organization. Memos and e-mails obviously aren’t effective. Managers who assume that written communications are sufficient may discover work is poorly or incompletely done due to employee’s lack of understanding. Verbal instructions take extra time and may mean that work stops while the manager goes over the necessary information. Complex instructions may have to be repeated several times for the illiterate person, while a literate person can be given a quick verbal run-down and written instructions for later reference.


    All organizations have some sort of safety issues, even if it’s something as simple as preventing slips and falls. Employees who are illiterate can’t read safety memos. An illiterate employee may be unable to read the warnings on machinery or precautions on cleaning solutions, increasing the risk of on-the-job injuries. In some cases, an employee who doesn’t follow safety precautions because he can’t read may unwittingly put other employees or customers at risk. When organizations update their safety policies, they often have their employees sign a form that says they’ve read and understood the new policy. An illiterate employee may sign even if he doesn’t understand.

Possible Solutions

    Nearly every workplace is complex, although in different ways, and changes occur constantly. New technology, new techniques, new regulations and new information require constant re-learning for all employees. The most successful organizations recognize that at least some of their employees may have literacy issues and take steps to solve the problems. Some may bring in trainers or partner with local colleges to help valuable employees improve their reading and writing. Long-term employees may have many skills the organization needs, and improving their literacy skills can add value for both the organization and the individual.

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