Diversity & Inclusion in the Construction Workplace
2020 has been a year that will have not only pages, but chapters written about it in history books. And of those chapters, one will certainly be a look back on the work we all did to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of people's minds. Construction is a proud industry, but we have not always been the most inclusive. There is no doubt much room to grow. Much room to build. Let’s take a look at the diversity and inclusion issues that face the construction industry, and what people and firms are doing to step up, speak out, and change the status quo.
From racist displays hung blatantly on jobsites, to hate speech marked on buildings, there have been nearly 20 reported incidents of obvious racism on construction sites this year.
But Construction Dive notes that “construction workers of color say these acts, while recently spotlighted in news coverage, are nothing new in the industry. They are just more examples of the types of racist incidents in construction that they have dealt with for their entire careers.”
It takes a toll
Studies continue to show that racism directly impacts employees' mental health and wellbeing, as well as their ability to perform their job to the best of their abilities. This is made even more dangerous in our industry, when working with heavy equipment and dangerous conditions is the norm.
Continuing this line of thinking, Personnel Today reports “When our wellbeing suffers, we lack the resources to function properly. In its most extreme form, this can lead to burn-out, which is characterised by exhaustion and disengagement. The brain tries to conserve resources, suppressing certain behaviours and causing us to be chronically tired, confused or unable to concentrate. At work, this means we might struggle to find solutions or become withdrawn during meetings. We might also start to avoid social engagement, becoming less chatty around the office or finding excuses to avoid spending time with colleagues.
There are two problems here, the first of which is that this behaviour doesn’t just occur in extreme cases; it can take place even when someone is experiencing a relatively low level of poor wellbeing. The second problem is that, as observers, we can only interpret what we can see. It’s unlikely that we would recognise this behaviour as being caused by burn-out. Instead, we might incorrectly label this person as someone who is struggling or working less hard, and therefore making less of a contribution.”
Bad for the people, bad for the business
Unfortunately, most of us know that racism is quite prevalent in our industry. This issue, as with many others, has been swept under the rug for far too long. And not only is racism inherently bad for our people and culture, it’s bad for the bottom line. It’s time to take a cold, hard look at how construction is truly affected by this nasty issue.
- Racism keeps workers away: Would you want to join an industry who is known to be inherently racist and non-inclusive? In a business where labor is a treasured resource, we must make our communities and work ecosystems safe for ALL of our employees. Not just the fortunate few.
- Racism makes job sites dangerous: “Safety and trust are deeply connected in construction,” said Allison Glussi, Director of Human Resources at New York-based Bright Power, to Construction Dive. “You need to know that where safety is concerned, your co-worker is going to do their job. But if people are expressing hate on the jobsite, how can you feel confident and trust that they will keep you safe?” Would you want to work somewhere you didn't feel safe? Well, let’s refer to reason #1.
- Racism increases liability: In an industry that is riddled with inherent risk, it seems that sometimes we forget about the human risk of being racist. It’s 2020. No one wants to work with racists. It causes more than just cultural issues, it causes legal issues, and eventually financial issues.
- Racism offends potential customers: This one seems pretty obvious, but it rings true, and may need to be stated again for some. If this year has done one thing, it has opened people’s eyes. They aren’t turning away anymore, and racist behavior is no longer silently acceptable in the eyes of consumers or business partners.
So how do we fix it?
There is a long way to go to take down this great and often silent beast. It will take effort from everyone; every field worker, every accountant, every PM, every C-Suite executive, and everyone in between. Firms must stand together, loudly and openly to denounce racism and racist actions in the industry. This is only the very first step. Let’s take a look at some tangible things construction firms can do to bridge the gap:
- Make sure the attitude of the office is transferred to the field. If the people in the field are not as tolerant, accepting, and welcoming as the people in the office, that’s a huge issue. HR can’t be the only ones being inclusive. It takes a village.
- Fire racist workers. Yes, even Bill. Even if he’s a “good guy.” We, as an industry, cannot denounce racism while still making excuses for it. Companies who want to make an actual difference must fire racist employees.
- Provide inclusivity, diversity, racism, and harassment training. Make your people feel more comfortable. AGC recently introduced sample anti-racism toolbox talks for contractors to use, and Turner’s YouTube video advocates both zero tolerance and a bystander intervention approach.
These steps truly are the LEAST we can do to start eradicating the wrongs that have been tolerated for so long in the construction industry.
There is certainly much work to be done, both in construction and beyond, until we have real diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Our world will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can, while we can. Stop racism on job sites. Stop racism in the office. Hire more employees of color. Openly denounce racism and rid your company of those who stand against your values. The world and your bottom line will thank you.