“The thing with literacy and numeracy is that it often takes a lot of courage to admit you’ve got problems in that area because people tend to make an assumption that everyone can read and write,” says Sharon Scott, national HR manager for Waste Management.
Scott recently headed a campaign to build employee confidence and develop communication skills across the company – the initiative has been a huge success and won the Skills Highway Award at the most recent Diversity Awards New Zealand.
However, Scott says the program’s success is largely thanks to the company being able to sidestep the stigma that is often associated with adult illiteracy.
“One of the main challenges in rolling out the initiative was framing it in a way that wouldn’t make employees reluctant to sign up and wouldn’t come with any stigma attached,” says Scott.
Firstly, the firm called the initiative SkillsFirst and talked about how the program was designed to improve communications skills and ultimately boost safety across the business.
“We didn’t talk about low levels of numeracy and literacy skills,” says Scott. “It was important how we branded it so people weren’t embarrassed to take part.”
While individual stigma was a big issue, Scott says there was also a need to win managers around – many of whom weren’t convinced a literacy program was needed in a hands-on workplace.
“In terms of managers, it was all about working with the converted,” says Scott. “Then when people start to hear the stories from individuals about the impact the program has on them, then they start to really get behind it.”
Already, the stories are remarkable and the initiative has made a huge impact not only in the workplace but in the wider community too.
“If employees don’t understand a safety instruction, they now have the confidence to say they don’t understand or to question it,” says Scott. “There are also people who have given presentations about how it’s helped them at home.”
Otila, who works at Waste Management’s Seaview Recycling site, is one such employee who has spoken out about the impact on her personal life.
“I opened up since the course. In a group, I can talk. In the community I’m more able to help my friends as well as the way they talk to their kids. I tell them to encourage them, instead of telling them off. I got this from the course.”
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