A strategic guide for capital project leaders who want to support African Americans who work in their organizations
As I write, thousands of people across the United States are marching for racial justice and equality. The death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody has galvanized people of color and their allies, setting off nationwide protests and inspiring an unprecedented national conversation about race. Capital project organizations and the construction industry as a whole are not exempt from this conversation. It’s time for us to talk openly about race, diversity, and minority inclusion in our industry.
The construction industry is overwhelmingly white. Labor force data from the 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey show 88% of people employed in our sector are White, while 6% are Black. A 2019 study from the recruitment firm Hays found 78% of black workers in the construction industry report limited career progression due to their race or other protected characteristics. Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, has argued that construction unions have “excluded Black hiring in a criminal fashion” and that “today, construction sites are close to Jim Crow.”
This matters because construction jobs are good jobs that provide a reliable, living wage and access to health and other benefits, and it is wrong to exclude some Americans from opportunities and advancement based on the color of their skin. It matters because we have research evidence showing that diversity improves productivity and increases revenue: A 2015 McKinsey study showed that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians. It also matters because minority workers can help mitigate the labor crisis facing the construction industry. There are many more reasons why diversity and inclusion matter, these are just a few that readily come to mind.
Now Is The Time For Leaders To Speak Out
Capital project leaders must speak out about their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and acceptance in the workplace and across the construction industry as a whole. This is not just about optics. Your employees are living and working in communities roiled by protest, they are watching riots on the news, they are talking about race at the water cooler and around the dinner table. They want and need to hear where their employers stand.
Further, capital construction organizations are not immune to social upheaval. They are an integral part of American communities, bringing power to homes, building roads and bridges, and employing Americans of all races and creeds. As a member of the community, your organization has a responsibility to act.
Social responsibility is no longer a marketing buzz word or a page in the annual report designed to placate activists. Today, the people who invest in your organization, the people who hire you, the people who work with you, and those who work for you will demand to know where your company stands on issues of race, diversity, and inclusion. Speak out now, and lead.
1 | Know Your Numbers
Many larger capital project organizations have already begun to address race and diversity issues in the workplace. For those who have not, the best place to start is with an assessment of your current position. Hard data doesn’t lie, and it can tell you a lot about where you stand. Ask:
- How diverse is your organization?
- Are minorities paid the same as White people who do the same work?
- How often are minorities disciplined, compared to their White peers?
- How often are minorities promoted, compared to their White peers?
Again, there are many more important questions about race and diversity that you can and should ask. These are just the beginning. The goal is to understand where you stand.
2 | Know Your Policies
Does your company have a written policy concerning diversity and inclusion in the workplace? If so, do your metrics reflect the intent of that policy? If not, why not? Does your Human Resources department take simple, proven steps to eliminate bias in hiring and promotion, such as removing names and genders from resumes upon receipt? Is there a trusted process for reporting bias in the workplace? Are there mechanisms in place to address and resolve bias complaints?
If your metrics reveal disparities, like an overwhelmingly white workforce or lack of diversity in leadership, what can you do to address those disparities? You will not be alone in your quest for a more diverse, inclusive workplace. There are many organizations that can assist in improving diversity in the workplace, ranging from advocacy groups and non-profits to academic organizations and paid consultants. The first step is to commit to change, then get the help you need to improve.
3 | Examine your personal and organizational biases
Race, diversity, and inclusion are not new issues. If you and your organization are addressing these topics for the first time, it is important to ask why that is the case. This will require unprecedented honesty and transparency. For some leaders, it will require uncomfortable conversations and uncommon vulnerability. We must do the work.
The problems we are addressing here are deeply entrenched in our culture and in our history. Indeed, there are historical, structural, and systemic factors in play, many of which operate well beyond your sphere of influence as a leader at a single capital project construction firm. While true, this does not absolve us of our individual responsibility to act. If we each work on diversity in our own organization, collectively we can make great change.
Let us work together to build an industry that welcomes people of all races, colors, creeds and genders, offering fair pay, the opportunity for advancement, and equality in the workplace. Let’s start today.