Diversity in Construction: Seven Tips for Successful DEI Programs

Many construction firms recently took a look at their business practices and made public commitments to improving diversity, equity and inclusion among their workforces.
By Lisa Robinson
May 31, 2021

Last year, spurred by a global movement to celebrate diversity and strive for social justice reforms, tens of thousands of companies—including scores of construction firms in the United States—took a look at their own business practices and made public commitments to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) among their workforces.

Diversity and inclusion at its most basic concept means truly accepting, supporting and including the full range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical abilities, religious or ethical values systems, national origins and political beliefs. It’s a practice that’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.

Diversity and inclusion programs—when properly facilitated—have a direct impact on employees, company identity and ultimately the bottom line. Happy employees that feel valued and included tend to be more collaborative and productive.

According to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, ethically and culturally diverse companies are 33% more likely to outperform their competition. The firm also notes that gender diversity among executive teams correlates to 15% higher profitability and value creation.

A Chief Focus for the Construction Industry

The construction industry, like many others, has faced challenges with diversity and inclusion. Recent years, though, have seen industry associations and individual contractors take significant action to stamp out racism, sexism, harassment, pay inequality and other social injustice blights. While great progress has been made on that front, it’s clear there is a lot more work to be done.

In 2020 alone, dozens of highly publicized incidents of flagrant racism on construction jobsites occurred throughout North America. These included harassment and verbal abuse of workers of color, incidents of nooses hung in the workplace and racist graffiti. There were similar stories of sexism, sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, ageism and more. One mid-2020 survey of construction professionals noted that 65% indicated having witnessed a racist incident on a jobsite.

Construction has long been an industry dominated by white male professionals, and despite younger generations of workers entering the construction workforce, the needle has been slow to move with regard to workforce diversification.

A 2019 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, noted that while Black people comprise 12% of the national workforce, they make up just 6% of the workforce in construction. This figure has gone largely unchanged over the past 25 years. Women make up just more than 10% of the construction workforce, with the bulk of those roles in office settings versus in the field. Hispanic and Latino professionals account for around 30% of U.S. construction firms’ approximately 10.8 million professionals, though the majority of those roles are in the field as laborers. White construction professionals, meanwhile, still made up 88.6% of the overall construction employment figures and accounted for 92% of construction managers and 90% of chief executives.

Nearly every construction organization and association has made diversity a key priority for 2021 and beyond, but it’s clear a significant part of that onus is on construction companies to act.

Seven Tips For Construction Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs

With equity, diversity and inclusion as a key theme in construction moving forward, Viewpoint featured two sessions at its Collaborate 2020 conference devoted to diversity and inclusion that examined the challenges the industry has faced, personal stories and strategies to improve equality across the board. Additionally, a number of 2021 virtual events on DEI have also produced some key industry insights. Below are seven key takeaways from these sessions and events on how contractors best implement their own DEI initiatives and how to make them successful.

1. Understand existing identities

Helping all employees understand the wide diversity of racial, gender, sexual and other identities, and how these impact their own experiences is a vital step to success. It’s also good for contractors to understand the current makeup of different identity types among their workforces to see where strengths and shortfalls lie.

2. Be clear on the “why”—personally and from a business perspective

Why is the company putting together a diversity and inclusion program? What are the end goals and benefits? Being able to easily articulate these in ways that contractors’ diverse workforces can understand is critical to success. Consider presenting DEI programs as a positive way to address labor gaps and shortfalls in the industry. Communicate at every level—not only the whys, but the benefits and the payoffs of a diverse workforce.

3. Buy-in from company management and leaders is an absolute

The most successful DEI programs come from the top down. Companies’ management teams and executive leadership should set the bar and drive these efforts. It’s very difficult to be successful without that. Of course, companies’ own workforces can influence leadership as well by advocating for more diversity and inclusion measures.

4. Time, resources and funding are needed to make DEI efforts work

This isn’t something that people will do on the side or in committees that are beyond the scope of their regular work. DEI efforts need to be a pivotal part of employees’ everyday work. That means finding the time and resources—including funding—to make these efforts stick.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Trying to create DEI programs alone or in a pre-existing bubble may not yield the desired results. To make sure all employees’ voices are represented in the process, think about looking to outside experts or consulting firms with experience in diversity and inclusion to help fill in the blanks or address issues that might not have been considered.

Looking to those that have journeyed down this path before can significantly boost the chance these initiatives will be successful.

6. Be accountable

Make it easy and safe for individuals to speak up when incidents of racism, sexism or other social injustices occur. Put a system in place for reporting and tracking incidents. Strive to create teachable moments when possible, but also be prepared to take swift action when needed, including strategic disciplinary plans and documented escalation in place to ensure consistent enforcement of DEI measures .

7. Don’t make this a one-off effort

For diversity and inclusion programs to work, information needs to be consistently communicated, procedures and tasks supported throughout the company, and the DEI plan regularly reevaluated to make sure it’s effective. Benchmark work and progress. Document DEI efforts at all levels and continually analyze what’s working and what’s not.

Real change is possible—especially if we all work together in a truly representative way to ensure every voice is heard and acknowledged in our construction ecosystems.

by Lisa Robinson
Lisa Robinson is vice president of human resources and leader of the People eXperience Team for Trimble’s construction business groups, spanning 3,000 employees across more than 20 countries.

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