The Construction Industry’s Big Job: Bulldozing Racism, Building DEI

August 30, 2021 - minute read

While workplace racism afflicts every industry, the construction industry ranks especially high. And while the issue is gaining attention, employers in this sector still have some mountains to move.

After all, where else are nooses—the ultimate symbol of racial hatred and violence—still popping up across worksites nationwide? Between 2015 and 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission logged at least 50 complaints involving nooses on construction sites, a mindboggling stat by any measure.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. However, the first step is for employers to acknowledge the problem. Then, led by their HR team—and with help from their HR software—contractors can build a DEI plan that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion across their worksites.

Digging Down to the Root of the Problem

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction is one of America’s least-diverse sectors. Only 6% of its 10.8 million-strong workforce is black, and the numbers are declining.

Perhaps these lopsided demographics somehow facilitate racially-fueled misbehavior. According to a Construction Dive survey, 65% of respondents said they’d witnessed racist incidents on jobsites, including racist graffiti (42%), racial slurs (38%), and the afore-mentioned nooses (15%).

In addition, 31% witnessed black workers deliberately assigned undesirable tasks, while 25% saw black applicants denied employment on the basis of race.

Most disturbing of all, 77% of respondents reported that nothing was done to address the misconduct.

And jobsite dynamics don’t help. Construction sites are high-stress environments, rife with deadlines, pressures, and physical safety risks. Tempers and resentments may easily flair—and on a sprawling worksite, it’s easy spray graffiti or worse without detection.

Because of the nature of the industry’s distributed workforce, management may not be onsite to curb problems in the making. When subcontractors are present, contractors may have even less direct control over their behavior.  

All things considered, even when an employer’s intentions are good, lack of oversight and enforcement may allow racism to flourish on construction worksites.

The Cost to Workers—and to the Bottom Line

Failure to promote DEI principles can be an expensive fail for all involved.

For workers, chronic harassment can be traumatic; in fact, it’s one of the top reasons people of color leave the industry

And even if they stay, they may not advance at the same pace as their white coworkers. Beyond getting stuck with menial tasks, black workers are more likely to be passed over for career-advancing training opportunities.

This hurts contractors as well as workers. For one thing, turnover is costly. For another, an industry facing a skilled workforce shortage can’t afford to drive qualified workers away.

Furthermore, alienated workers are less productive. According to an AGC of America study, disengaged workers cost a 100-person firm $137,660 annually in lost productivity. An even more alarming finding from that study: ostracized workers are more likely have on-the-job accidents.

As for those noose incidents, some of them resulted in work stoppages and project delays, not to mention six-figure settlements and damage to the employer’s reputation. It’s a lose/lose situation, which is why you should take pains to avoid it.

How to Build a Sound DEI Plan

According to industry groups such as the National Association of Minority Contractors and the Safe from Hate coalition, there are a number of steps contractors can take to improve their workplace culture and practices. For example, your HR department might:

1. Establish a Zero Tolerance Policy

Creating a zero-tolerance policy involves spelling out inacceptable behaviors and the consequences for engaging in them—content for your employee handbook. To ensure supervisors abide by it, create a mandatory, step-by-step enforcement process, too.

2. Create a Diversity Training Program

Changing long-held perceptions doesn’t happen overnight, but ensuring that all employees receive annual anti-bias training can help spark a cultural shift. Your HR software’s learning management system can be invaluable.

3. Respond to Racist Incidents on a Workforce-wide Basis

Any incident that occurs on your watch is a teachable moment. Whether your response is to hold immediate discussions with work crews or suspend work altogether, your actions will speak volumes.

4. Create a Culture Where Workers Can Speak Out

Workers should be given a vehicle for reporting harassment without fear of retaliation—another topic for your employee handbook. Witnesses of such incidents should be encouraged to report them as well.

5. Hold Supervisors Accountable

Supervisors are responsible for setting much of the culture on any given worksite; make sure they support your DEI endeavors. It’s hard when managers are part of the problem, but it happens—and it’s not something you can overlook.

6. Monitor Your HR Analytics

By monitoring recruiting and retention metrics closely, you can track your progress and catch potential problems as they unfold on your worksites.

Needless to say, when it comes to enacting a DEI program, your HR software is—or should be—one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox.

If that’s not the case, know that EPAY Systems’ HCM solution is a great choice for contractors. Our cloud-based technology is ideal for managing a distributed workforce. Our flexible payroll engine easily accommodate complex pay rules, including union agreements. And, of course, we can handle your certified payroll requirements, too. Take two minutes to learn more.

Filed Under: Construction Human Resources DEI