CPD: Getting together, getting ahead
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Legal reasons aside, there’s a compelling business case for a more diverse workforce, says Constructing Equality’s Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB
Women and minority groups are under-represented in the UK construction industry: only 13.5% of the workforce is female compared to 44% of the working population, and only 5.8% of construction workers are Black and Minority Ethnic compared to 7% of the working population.
Research by Sonia Gujaro for the CIOB in 2006 found that women tended to leave the industry at an early stage in disproportionate numbers due to workplace culture. While there have been year-on-year increases in women students on construction courses, the fact that many of them are leaving the industry before reaching senior positions means that there is still very little gender diversity when it comes to strategic decision makers.
And last year, an inquiry into race discrimination in the construction industry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that non-white ethnic minorities viewed the industry as a slightly more attractive job option than their white counterparts did. Nevertheless, the report said there was a lack of non-white role models with whom they could identify.
While attracting the right people into industry is vitally important, these findings show that it is also imperative to support those in minority positions while they are employed, to ensure they want to remain in the industry and progress.
This CPD article will highlight the business case for employing a diverse workforce, before looking at current legal requirements. Finally, there is advice on the steps employers and managers can take to improve diversity within their own organisations.
The business model
The business argument for having a diverse workforce is not based on a desire to “do the right thing” or to pursue “fairness for all”, but to strengthen productivity and bottom line performance. Recent reports have highlighted the following business advantages of having a diverse workforce:
• You become an employer of choice. For minorities in construction the support they receive from their employer is an important factor in choosing who they will work for. If you can promote high retention rates and support services,
you will find more interest from not only minorities but the top tier of the workforce in general.
• It improves business performance. Research suggests that a well-managed group of diverse employees will improve your productivity and profit in a number of ways. These include mirroring your client base, having a wider pool of experience and creativity, and tapping into more networks. At project level, research has found that diverse groups outperform more homogenous groups, backing up the theory that different experiences provide us with different viewpoints and solutions. And a US study of Fortune 500 companies found that those with three or more women on the board all reported stronger-than-average profits.
• It is easier to retain knowledge and experience. If organisations could do more to retain women and ethnic minority staff, they would also save money. A 2009 report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills — Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance Through Employee Engagement — put the cost of replacing an employee at roughly equivalent to a year’s salary, once training, corporate knowledge and intellectual capital are factored in. Instead of thinking of the costs involved in supporting and developing staff, it might be more useful to consider the cost of not doing so.
• It addresses skills shortages. In the latest skills survey from the CIOB, 72% of respondents felt there was an ongoing skills shortage. But if the industry is failing to recruit from the entire selection pool, we are will not only struggle to address the shortage, but also fail to find the best candidates. While it’s assumed that young men are the industry’s most likely recruits, some studies have shown that some members of this group are also put off construction due to its macho image. To encourage the best recruits, we need to offer an appealing, diverse and professional environment.
• It helps you meet procurement standards. Public authorities need to meet public sector equality duties, and more important, so do subcontractors that supply goods or services to public sector authorities. By aligning your organisation to the needs of your client, you put yourself in a position to win more work. In addition, there are increasing numbers of female and ethnic minority managers making procurement decisions for public sector work. If all you offer is middle-aged white men, it might not be enough.
Currently, the law surrounding equality and diversity is changing. The new Equality Act 2010 achieved Royal Assent in April, and will come into effect in stages from October 2010.
The new Act brings together the existing race, disability and gender equality legislation, so that private businesses and public organisations must continue to protect individuals against discrimination on the grounds of age, race and ethnicity, gender, or disability. In addition, individuals are given new protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, and gender reassignment.
However, employers making hiring or promotion decisions can still make appointments that could be seen as anti-diversity in some situations. For instance, it is possible to select on the grounds of location relative to the project, qualifications and past employment, as long as none of these factors are indirectly discriminatory. For example, a company stating that it would only employ people over 5ft 10in could be guilty of indirect discrimination on the grounds of gender as most women fall below this height.
Employers can use “positive action” by putting measures in place to increase minority representation in the workplace. Organisations can make pro-diversity efforts in their training, advertising and development programmes to help those in the minority compete with the majority on a level playing field. Positive action differs greatly from positive discrimination, as at the point of job selection all things must be equal.
For example if your company has an under-representation of female and minority ethnic trainee site managers, under positive action you can:
• advertise for trainee site managers in media outlets or locations more likely to attract female or minority ethnic audiences, for example certain websites, magazines or community centres;
• note on the advertisement that women and/or ethnic minorities are encouraged to apply;
• put a group of non-site staff through a training course around the role of a site manager to raise their awareness and encourage them to apply;
• take on a woman or a minority ethnic candidate in a trainee position. Once the training period is over, the individual must re-apply for the permanent job and be judged equally against other applicants.
The new Equality Act 2010 also contains a provision that would allow employers, in a tie-break situation between two equally well-qualified candidates, to choose the candidate from an under-represented group in their workforce. However, as CM went to press, the coalition government had yet to decide if or when to bring in this measure.
Public sector organisations already have public sector equality duties, which require them to have equality schemes in place and to ensure the active promotion of equality of opportunity. Under the new Act, these duties will be widened to cover more “protected strands” and also to cover private or voluntary sector organisations carrying out a public function. This part of the Act is not due to come into force until April 2011, and this date still has to be confirmed by the current government.
But even under existing legislation, public bodies must make thorough checks on how suppliers — including construction companies — are meeting equality legislation. In addition, the advisory guidance accompanying the current legislation says that “public bodies need to ensure that public money... is used to actively promote equality of opportunity”. With public sector work now accounting for around 40-50% of the industry’s output, this is a clear incentive to promote diversity more actively.
How can you implement equality?
To take an averagely homogeneous construction company and transform it into a diverse one, change management is as important as the initiatives you put in place. Here are some suggestions on how you can manage long-term change:
Decide what you want to achieve and why. The reason might be skills shortages, getting on more tender lists, or even lack of creativity. Clarify your priorities and their motivating factors.
Communicate. Let your employees know what you are planning on doing and the reasons why.
Analyse your current workforce. In which areas are you underrepresented?
In which areas would you like to increase representation? If you do not have the data, you may need to decide how to collect and measure it. A simple cost-effective way is to send a questionnaire to employees, but be careful to tell your staff why you need this information and what you intend to do with it. Always allow an opt-out option, as some people may feel this information is private.
Consult. Once you know where you are and where you want to be, you need to find out how to get there. Don’t assume you know what the barriers are. For example, it is often assumed that women leave their site-based careers as they dislike the bad language, poor facilities and dirty conditions. In fact, women usually view these things in the same way as men do — as a nuisance but no reason to quit a career over.
The main reasons women leave are lack of opportunity, lack of support and glass ceilings, so these are the areas that need to be dealt with. Engage with your employees through a variety of routes to find out the barriers they have faced and how they have overcome them.
Take advice. Consider employing an external specialist to advise on how to engage with different groups and build an effective diversity strategy. Alternatively seek advice from some of the free online sources of information such as www.constructingequality.co.uk or the
UKRC at www.ukrc4setwomen.org
Develop. Use the information you have gained to build a diversity plan that will enable you retain, recruit and develop a more diverse staff profile. While every organisation has differing needs, the plan should include training for line managers, mentoring, networking, support groups and tracking. Sample diversity plans for construction businesses are available at www.constructingequality.co.uk. Not every initiative need be costly — make use of the existing resources available to you.
Embed the plan. A director or senior figure should have responsibility for it, and should make clear that this is what is now expected of employees. This is hugely important as employees will be more likely to take on new initiatives if they feel that their managers and directors are supporting them.
Monitor and review. Review your strategy at set intervals and make changes to strengthen your approach.
It’s okay to get things wrong, as long as you focus on correcting past errors and getting the future right.
The current dynamic of the construction industry is that contractors are being urged to work more closely with their clients and to champion innovation and fresh thinking. By ensuring that your staff profile is diverse, broad-based and sustainable, you can set yourself apart and use this unique selling point to not only attract and retain the best staff, but the also the best clients.
Chrissi McCarthy is founder of Constructing Equality, a consultancy and training provider that helps to retain, develop and support women and minorities in construction. It offers management training and coaching for women in construction as well as construction-specific equality and diversity workshops for managers, directors and HR staff. Visit the website to sign up for a free monthly equality and diversity in construction newsletter.
Contractor acts on diversity
Diversity awareness training brought the issues alive at social housing contractor Bullock Construction, says training manager Nicola Gill
In 2006, Bullock decided to provide diversity sessions using actors from training provider AFTA Thought Training to employees from all levels of the business, including site managers, operatives, senior management and directors.
We also invited some clients from local authorities and housing associations. We felt this was the best way to embed the issues in everyone’s conscience and make them think about how they treat people in the workplace as well as residents in their homes.
We already had a programme of diversity training in place, but we needed something innovative that would really have an impact on our employees’ attitudes and behaviour. I first realised the positive impact of using dramatised live case studies to communicate diversity issues when I saw their actors deliver a session at another company.
The company made a real effort to make the live scenarios as convincing as possible. The actors were very convincing, they wore high-vis jackets and developed real scenarios, one was based in a quantity surveying office for example. Their researcher did a lot of investigation into our business, our policies and procedures to make the training bespoke for us.
The scenarios covered all issues related to diversity, including ageism, sexism, racism and religion, and brought it all together in a
way that our employees could relate to.
A facilitator was also there who would occasionally pause the live case study to ask employees about their experiences, and what they thought about it. He’d also provide facts and examples of real incidents at other companies or in the media, which reinforced the
message. It resulted in some very lively debates.
We have been running training sessions for several years now. Recently, we asked an independent firm to interview employees who
had received the training at least 12 to 18 months ago to find out what they’d learnt and brought to their roles.
The feedback was very positive, many had re-assessed their approach to managing people, not talking down to younger apprentices for example, and generally treating others with the respect they’d expect themselves. It has resulted in a much happier and productive environment.
The positive impact on our company culture resulted in us winning client Liverpool Housing Trust’s 2008 Equality and Diversity contractor of the year award.
CPD test paper
September 2010: Diversity in the workplace
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