Low literacy: the hidden workplace issue

by |

According to OECD research 43% of the New Zealand adult population have less than optimal literacy skills and 51% have less than optimal numeracy skills for a knowledge-based economy. And while those figures are high Equal Employment Opportunities Trust Chief Executive, Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie says it is still a hidden issue in many organisations.

“In this day and age there is the added complexity of many people being able to mask their poor literacy skills behind technology. There is a vast difference between being computer literate or knowing the basics to get by, and being fully literate especially when it comes to financial literacy,” Cassidy-Mackenzie said.

While broaching the topic can be difficult for employers, 

This is a difficult one and obviously needs to be handled with sensitivity. Often through conversations and working with individuals issues can come to light that may have lay hidden for a long time, it may only be one person directly affected but the impact can ripple out to many others across the team or organisation. Ideally a need should be assessed without singling out individual employees and literacy sessions run as a group.

To tackle the issue Cassidy-Mackenzie said organisation first need to consider who their employees are and the customers. Then ask do they have the skills set needed to be able to do their job to the best of their ability and in a supported environment. For example is a retail employee financially literate enough to explain deals to customers?

Next is to recognise that some issues in the workplace could be caused by employees having low literacy and numeracy skills – for example commonly made mistakes or health and safety breaches being made are often attributable to lack of understanding of signage.

After considering these two points Cassidy-Mackenzie said organisations then need work out the number of employees with low literacy and numeracy skills, how big the issues is and then how to upskill those workers.

She said there are several options employers can consider such as working with an internal trainer; linking to your ITO; or looking for funding from the TEC for specific workplace literacy programmes.

"Many employees who have participated in workplace literacy training say that it has had far reaching effects beyond the workplace and dramatically improved their lives," Cassidy-Mackenzie said.

“Supporting employees to bring their whole selves into the workplace can unlock innovation and creativity resulting in increased productivity and performance. Many employers see significant, tangible benefits from workplace literacy training, including: increased ability to follow verbal and written instructions; staff are more confident, engaged, and able to take on more responsibility; fewer workplace accidents and mistakes; wastage is reduced; customer satisfaction rates improve; and productivity and profitability increase."


HRD Forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions