Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

People Make Mistakes, and Some are Doozies

October 12th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

We’re all human and make mistakes during our lives. Some are obviously bigger than others, and have the ability to haunt us for considerable lengths of time. A recent workplace mistake that no one in Ottawa County, Michigan is likely to forget anytime soon was delicately described as “a missing “L” in the word public,” which necessitated the reprinting of 170,000 ballots for the upcoming election and cost the county $40,000. Meanwhile, some innovative Minnesota programs focus on improving employees’ English skills in the workplace and are designed to prevent more embarrassing and costly workplace mistakes.

Thankfully, the employee who typed up the ballot information has never had his or her name revealed, but as a Board of Elections spokesperson put it, “Unfortunately sometimes there is human error involved.” This one is the kind of error that no one soon forgets, and that becomes American watercooler fodder. (See Holland Sentinel article.) The word “public” was used in the ballot proposal 6 times, but one of them had an error — the missing “L.” [A brief aside: a friend who once made this embarrassing mistake throughout a court filing (commented upon by the court to her extreme embarrassment) says it taught her to remove the offending word from her spell check dictionary — even when the word is properly spelled and intentionally used, you’d prefer to know about it and make sure it belongs in your document first.]

The mistake was in the text of an already-controversial measure — Proposal 06-02 — a proposed state constitutional ban on affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to individuals or groups based on race, gender and other categories. Although five or six people proofread the ballot materials, as one supervisor put it, “My first thought was, ‘Oh crap’…It’s just one of those words. Even after we told people it was in there, they still read over it. It happens occasionally.” Before anyone noticed the mistake, Ottawa County had already printed 180,000 ballots and sent out 10,000 ballots to absentee voters, most of which have already been voted and returned to the county.

It’s almost a shame that the mistake was discovered in time to reprint the ballot. Perhaps knowing the mistake was there would have encouraged voters to read the language more closely, and think about its damaging effects. Even our conservative U.S. Supreme Court upheld the need for continued affirmative action programs in the state of Michigan several years ago, in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger.

While this was a humorous and embarrassing example of how small communications mistakes can be very costly, others are perhaps not so funny, and can cause serious problems in the workplace. “Employers know that misunderstandings, in the literal sense, cost them money. Immigrants and refugees know that poor English makes them hard to hire and even harder to promote.” This is why “job-specific English courses” are spreading throughout Minnesota, and presumably elsewhere. (See Minneapolis Star Tribune article.)

As one of the instructors explains it, “This is not ESL, or how to go to the grocery store or how to help your kids with their homework. This is specifically to train you to do your work.” The courses cover technical terms specific to specific occupations or workplaces, and grammar and verb-tense mistakes commonly made with workplace words, such as “I am working” vs. “I work here.” They also can include “accent reduction” — mastering the position of the tongue when pronouncing a foreign sound.

In one particular workplace, Mackay Envelope Corp., the results were quite impressive: after 40 workers completed courses, they increased the number of workplace terms they were familiar with from an average of 35 to an average of 51 of 55 terms tested. The company’s CEO, Scott Mitchell, says the new proficiency is one reason for a 45 percent drop in financial losses, on product returned because of problems, which could easily save the $80 million company $400,000 a year. “If you have communication issues and the product is screwed up because of it,” he said, “it’s an easy 2-foot putt for the company to understand you need to improve that.”

Certainly, this positive approach to improving employees’ communications skills is refreshing when compared to employers’ efforts to exploit immigrant workers and institute English-only policies only designed to demean and isolate certain workers. Let’s hope it catches on, because improved communication in the workplace can only have positive benefits for everyone involved.

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