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How You Can Help Fix the Big Literacy Problem at U.S. Businesses

Encourage reading activities at your workplace and in the surrounding community to foster productivity and prosperity.
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It’s well documented that literacy -- or a lack thereof -- affects virtually every aspect of U.S. society, from poverty and crime rates to health care costs.

Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, Americans’ reading proficiency has declined in most age groups. A recent study revealed that Americans adults’ reading skills are significantly lower than those of adults in other developed countries, which explains why young workers overseas are outperforming their U.S. counterparts.

This is obviously a bad sign for employees, but what’s often overlooked is how literacy affects U.S. businesses.

Related: Employees Yearn to Learn. Here's What Employers Can Do to Help.

Poor literacy can have a number of negative effects on an organization. According to the World Literacy Foundation, businesses with poor literacy chart significant losses as a result of needing to correct orders and process refunds and customers turning away the business following poor communication -- not to mention the internal problems that can arise from miscommunication.

On the other hand, highly literate teams communicate more effectively, which promotes efficiency and inspires client trust. The World Literacy Foundation's research on employees who had received language and literacy training revealed that this led to noticeable cost savings, access to further training, improved participation in teams and meetings and increased morale.

Employee literacy doesn’t just benefit individual companies, either. It grows the economy as a whole.

According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, countries where a large percentage of the workforce is employed in jobs requiring greater use of reading skills tend to be more economically productive. Simply put, a smarter worker is a more productive one, and higher productivity positively affects the bottom line and the GDP as a whole. 

Related: How Making Employees Lifelong Learners Can Help Your Company Succeed

Promote learning and literacy in the workplace.

Buffer and HubSpot offer their employees unlimited Kindle books, but other companies can tap other low-cost ways to make literacy a priority. Even if everyone on the team is a proficient reader, it's possible to promote learning and cultivate higher-level reading skills in these ways:

1. Send out articles in a daily or weekly email to update employees on industry changes and help them keep current and engaged.

2. Create a monthly book club for interested staffers and incentivize participation by treating the employees involved to lunch. Put someone in charge of organizing the book club and reward her with cash or an American Express gift card.

3. Designate an office book-swap area where employees can share books.

4. Start a summer Friday reading program so that employees are encouraged to read during certain hours.

5. Give back to the community by finding local charities that aligned with the corporate mission. My company strives to help kids without access to literature and prods employees and customers to become involved. This not only promotes the importance of literacy but also fosters a sense of connection with the community.  

Related: 14 Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read in '14

How leaders can benefit from reading

The burden of self-education can’t rest solely on employees. Leaders need to inspire their teams and stay up-to-date on industry trends. Entrepreneurs should be reading constantly.

As a 26-year-old leader, I’ve found myself in meetings with executives who have worked in publishing longer than I’ve been alive. I therefore can’t afford not to arm myself with a wealth of knowledge.

Stay abreast of industry trends by reading trade journals and articles and pick up a few books on business and entrepreneurship so as to become a better leader. Certain books have become required reading for entrepreneurs, such as by Eric Ries, by Sheryl Sandberg and by Brian Cohen and John Kador.

Business leaders everywhere are reading these books, and all entrepreneurs should to stay competitive. Plenty of entrepreneurs say they don’t have the time. Make time. Without knowledge, whatever a business owner is doing with his or her time could be a waste.

The bottom line: A literate company is an informed company that’s better equipped to communicate. Don’t let a business fall behind due to a literacy gap.

Related: The Workplace Training Hotbed You May Be Overlooking