Hidden Benefits of Workplace Literacy

August 7, 2018


Many years ago, when I was employed by a community college, a young Vietnamese man, Nha, Became my student. His tenacity, talent, and courage in the face of extreme hardship and seemingly insurmountable odds was inspiring to me personally, and we became friends. He had been trying for three years to cut through an incredible bureaucratic tangle in order to bring his four sisters, mother, and father from Vietnam to live in the United states. I committed to help him. The two of us gathered information, strategized, and worked for another three years to make his dream happen.

In the meantime, I had moved, as had he. Nevertheless, soon after his family members were settled in their new home in the US, he drove his four sisters, his mother, and his father 80 miles to visit me in my home. They brought along as a special gift of love an array of exotic Vietnamese dishes–a veritable feast. One of Nha’s sisters is an accomplished musician on a Vietnamese 16-string instrument. She mesmerized each of us with her sensitive interpretation of traditional and modern Vietnamese music. “I prefer the sad songs,” she said in her tentative English. “They speak of the pain and the hurt in my country.”

They treated me like a queen–each sister vying to be the one to serve my food. Nha believes that I am directly responsible for their being here–that if it weren’t for my assistance, his family would not have been able to come. That, of course, is not true. He would have succeeded without me; he would have applied his considerable intellect, his ceaseless efforts, and his unswerving determination, and he would have found a way to get the job done.

After they left, and I was luxuriating in the afterglow of an incredibly moving and enjoyable experience, I began thinking about unintended outcomes and hidden benefits. I certainly didn’t think I was doing anything outstanding or wonderful as I was helping Nha; I certainly didn’t think I would gain anything more than the satisfaction of helping a friend in need. However, I did reap benefits far beyond my expectation, and I will obviously continue to do so. The entire family has become friends of a very special kind and have already brought richness into my life that few people have opportunity to experience. Sometimes, I thought, the hidden benefits–that is, those that are not readily apparent or predictable–can be more dramatic, more meaningful, and more important than the expected ones.

At the time, I was working full-time as a literacy consultant in industry and had been developing a marketing approach based on the benefits a company gains by sponsoring an on-site workplace literacy program for its employees. After this experience with Nha and his family, I began wondering about hidden benefits of literacy in the workplace. Some of the benefits are obvious. In our eight month evaluation of the Read Right literacy program at Simpson Timber Company, students had averaged 4 years’ growth an 25 hours of instruction. Several of the men who graduated from our program and who had not been able to read books before were now reading and enjoying books on continuous improvement, quality at the source, employee involvement, and other world-class management principles. Employees were also applying their newly developed literacy skills in the workplace on a daily basis. They tell stories about being able to read the work orders, finding lock-out switches with ease, reading messages left by previous shifts, taking safety courses. Predictably, any activities or performances that require a reading ability to accomplish were directly and positively affected by employee participation in the workplace literacy program. We had carefully gathered evidence to support this expected benefit, but we had not attempted to discover hidden benefits. If there are hidden benefits, how can they be found? Obviously, employees had to be asked; only they would be able to analyze the less than obvious benefits that were accruing to the company as a result of its providing the opportunity for its employees to learn to read or to improve their reading.

I invited a few of my most verbal students to attend a brainstorming session with me, and I posed the question: What might be the hidden benefits for a company in sponsoring a workplace literacy program? They talked and talked, and I took notes. Sure enough, the students identified many hidden benefits.

I learned from my students that being unable to read or write as well as they would like is a direct cause of constraints on their effectiveness in work activities not usually thought of as requiring literacy skills. My students gave examples of having shunned leadership roles within their workplaces for fear of being exposed. One talented man even dropped out of being an improvement team leader because of the stress created by the fear of being embarrassed about his third-grade level reading and writing skills should it be discovered. They had been reticent to communicate ideas they had for positive change in the workplace because they were afraid they would be asked to write the idea down; they had been unwilling to ask for help with problems that arose because they were afraid they would be asked to read to gain information for solving the problem. The lack of confidence caused an unwillingness to share ideas and problems with co-workers and managers. There was a general withdrawal and unwillingness to communicate that negatively affected the inter-personal relationships that are essential for building effective teams in the workplace. They spoke of having believed they were dumb. Their self-esteem had been low, and as a result they had been unwilling to attempt to solve problems in their work areas. They spoke of having been afraid to risk any kind of change and of an unwillingness to try anything new–reading related or not.

Once they became competent in reading and writing, their self-esteem soared, their comfort zones were expanded, their confidence was greatly enhanced, and they became noticeably more participatory. One student is now on the executive board for the Union. Another went directly to the President of the company to thank him for the literacy program. Still another is suggesting books for his managers to read. They report increased enthusiasm for their work and an eagerness to solve problems in their work areas and to assist others. They no longer feel so defensive and so have a quieter, cooperative approach with fellow workers. They are behaving productively rather than withdrawing in an attempt to hide their deficiencies.

Importantly, non-readers and poor readers develop tremendous coping skills to make up for their reading deficiencies. These workers spoke of learning to listen carefully to critical things being said., of observing carefully and relying on memory, of being able to subtly influence others to do the tasks that require reading or defining alternate ways of doing them themselves. These skills enable them to get by in the workplace in spite of their literacy problems. Ironically, a formally functionally illiterate worker may have developed thinking, analysis, and listening skills that exceeded his always-literate counterpart. Once the reading problem is solved and he is no longer fearful of sharing his thinking, that employee becomes a strong, self-confident team player and is extremely valuable to the company.

These kinds of hidden benefits are difficult to measure, but they are definitely recognizable in the workplace. One manager said of two of his men who had graduated from the literacy project, “They are noticeably more confident. They have more self-esteem. I notice a positive difference in their work.”

As U.S. businesses direct their efforts toward establishing a new collaborative culture in order to marshal their people resources to best compete in the rapidly changing world marketplace, it may be that the hidden benefits of workplace literacy have an impact on the success of the effort that is equal to or even greater than the more obvious benefits.