Business writing: improving employees’ literacy to maintain employer brand

Grammatical errors can seriously undermine an organisation’s credibility, so it’s essential that employers identify problems at an early stage. Nadia Damon reports.

Eilish Dempsey worked as a receptionist at shipping firm NYK Group Europe for nine years before moving into a new role as PA to the managing director. Drafting business correspondence and e-mails were a key part of the job, so Dempsey knew she needed to brush up on her grammar.

“I had learned all these things in the past,” she explains, “but when you don’t use this knowledge every day you tend to lose it.”

Following her request for additional training, she attended a one-day effective business English course with training company Hemsley Fraser.

“The course covered a lot of useful things,” says Dempsey, “and it taught me to look at my work more carefully before pressing the ‘send’ button.” After initially having to spend time re-reading her work – with her managing director often having to amend his previously dictated correspondence himself, Dempsey claims her increased awareness of business writing techniques and grammar has given her the confidence to rewrite sentences and make other alterations that are welcomed by her boss. This has cut down on the number of drafts required – saving them both time.

Literacy day

Regardless of whether good grammar is required at recruitment stage, or may be a necessity further down the line, all businesses need to ensure they have a literacy programme in place, says Heather Ker, author of the recently launched Better Writing: Better Business, a web-based modular course produced by educational software developer, Basic Writing Skills.

“Because unless people have been extremely lucky in their choice of school or teacher, they are very likely [thanks to successive UK education policies] to have missed out on the technicalities of grammar and punctuation,” she explains.

Sue Southwood, development officer for Literacy, Numeracy and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), which has worked with the British Army on literacy issues, acknowledges that grammar is a frequent issue for employers. She claims that a key part of any learning & development department’s literacy policy should be recognising the problem and how it might be affecting the business. She says this knowledge can then be used to raise awareness among key staff to conduct a skills check and/or as a basis for individual interviews with employees as part of an organisational needs analysis.

Aptitude tests

Where business writing is a key part of the job, employers are entitled to conduct aptitude tests at the recruitment stage. However, much like any employment procedure, a grammar diagnostic should adhere to recruitment best practice – which means telling candidates about a test in advance and asking them if they have any special requirements. This is particularly important when testing dyslexics, as the condition comes under the Disability Discrimination Act. It should be clear during any assessment that the organisation is testing essential skills for the role itself, rather than weeding out anyone it privately deems to be unsuitable.

But while it is understandable that employers may be keen to diagnose any literacy issues early in the recruitment process, NIACE development officer (Dyslexia) Rachel Davies makes the point that by testing at the interview stage, and rejecting applicants purely on the basis of grammar, employers do run the risk of missing out on candidates who may have better business skills and just need some additional support or training.

Incognito interventions

As literacy will always be a touchy subject in the workplace, Southwood recommends that employers refer to these skills using work-based examples. “Marketing courses as ‘report writing’ or ‘writing better e-mails’ is much more effective,” she explains, “as is using a model that offers opportunities to improve rather than suggesting people have needs or gaps that need to be met or filled.”

Alison Cowper, learning consultant at Hemsley Fraser, agrees that diplomacy is a key part of grammar awareness – especially as many very well-educated people have never had this training.

She says: “People can feel a bit touchy about being sent on a course, but, in my experience, people are quite hungry to learn.”

Cowper, who teaches a one-day effective business English course, reveals that companies which dress grammar and punctuation training up as editing, proof reading or business writing will automatically generate great demand.

Barry Rockhill, managing director of GBC Learning, claims a lot of grammar and punctuation tuition is offered under the umbrella of ‘business writing’. Grammar may be a common bugbear of employers, but Rockhill says many companies are also looking to improve productivity levels by sending individuals on courses that speed up the writing process and offer advice on techniques – particularly when it comes to reports and e-mails.

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