Diversity is More Than Skin Deep

by Alex Willis

Leadership Surge Tackles DEI & Team-Building 

I got a call.

Someone hung a noose on a job site. Emergency shutdown. Two-thousand workers benched overnight. Can I fly out to do Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) training onsite to get everyone back to work?

Immediately, I am hijacked by fear. Heart jackhammering, palms sweating, thoughts racing.

What is going on out there at that site? I wondered. Would I, as a Black man, be accepted if I attempted training? What could I contribute? Would it even be safe for me to go? 

Judgment, as it often does, follows fear. Bias comes rushing to the front of my mind.

What kind of place is this? What kind of person would do something like that? 

All of these thoughts and feelings happening at once.

I steadied my breathing and slowed my thoughts to get control.

Eyes closed, I opened myself to empathy. I offered compassion to the victims on the site. The trauma and fear they must have felt in an environment where they feel threatened and unaccepted. Then, I turned my compassion to the perpetrators. I considered how overwhelmed and angry someone must be to lash out in this way.

I know how this must sound.

You are probably thinking: You did what now, for who— why? 

I extended compassion to the perpetrators because I truly believe that to bring about real, lasting change, we must be willing to show respect for everyone.

My company, Leadership Surge, specializes in training for the construction industry. For over a decade, we have worked in the trades teaching professionals how to be more efficient, effective, and, overall, more productive.

I often say I can’t build anything myself—don’t ask me to install a circuit breaker, or you’ll get a blank stare and a “Wait, watt?” (a little electrician humour for you)—but I can build people and teams.

In the last several years, our industry has undergone changes. We have seen companies on stand-down, graffiti on sites, and conflict among workers resulting in millions in losses.

Research conducted by Construction Dive magazine found that 65% of respondents to a 2021 survey had seen a racial incident on the job site. Swastikas, racial slurs, name-calling, offensive graffiti, and other inappropriate behaviour are commonplace in the trades. Things that would never be tolerated in other professions have become the norm on construction sites.

Industry leaders want change, but they are paralyzed. Changing culture can feel impossible. They don’t know how to move forward.

Diversity is More Than Skin Deep

Leadership Surge takes a broad view of diversity in the workplace. Our approach goes beyond differences in skin colour, race, ethnicity, and gender. If we narrow our focus, we leave out the largest part of our construction workforce—middle-aged white men.

DEI is for all people.

I categorize diversity into five areas: personality, internal, external, organizational, and era. The more we can see all the unique differences that make each one of us up, the more we can begin to accept—and respect—those differences.

I suggest that leaders begin by looking at themselves. Exploring recognizing their own differences and personal biases. Start the conversation at the core of diversity— personality—to see how this crosses physical characteristics that trigger bias. How we think, operate, what we like, and don’t like. These things that make up who we are on the inside are more important.

Internal encompasses unchangeable characteristics. Our ethnicity, age, gender, sex, and nationality. External are changeable characteristics like geography, job, socioeconomic status, and location. Organizational level diversity depends on your job, classification, shift, trade, and seniority. Era Diversity involves generational differences. Boomers to Zoomers with all the characteristics that make up Gen Xers and Millennials along the way.

Look for common ground in personality; it overarches everything. We may be from different generations, ethnicities, and even different languages, but we can find shared commonalities in personalities.

Creating a Culture of Emotional Safety

As an industry, we focus a lot on physical safety on the job site. We have policies around minimizing physical risk, but more importantly, we have a culture that reinforces pro-safety behaviour. Over the years, site by site across the industry, we have made this kind of organic risk management an everyday part of the job.

There is another safety we don’t often think about in construction: the emotional safety of belonging.

This is where I would encourage leaders to practice active compassion. Put yourself in the shoes of your coworkers. Ask: What would it take to make everyone feel included? 

I want a future where it is as easy to advocate for one another against bias and promote inclusion as it is to say, “Lift with your legs, not your back.”

Great Leaders Shift Culture

Great leaders understand that diversity makes us better. If you are to be a great leader, you have to be able to recognize the differences in your team and be able to appreciate them. You have to create a safe, inclusive job site where everyone feels a sense of purpose, a voice, and a sense of belonging.

In the situation that opened this article, all 2,000 staff were trained in a tent onsite and back to work in a week. We ensured an efficient return to work, keeping the project on schedule and recouping any losses from the disruption. More importantly, we put efforts in place to reinforce these changes. Only a few weeks after the training, one worker overheard another using inappropriate language that would never be tolerated in another work environment. Empowered by the DEI training and recognizing that speech did not represent the kind of culture they wanted in the workplace, they spoke out.

I encourage leaders to create an environment where everyone feels safe. Promote allyship wherever possible. It can be harder to recognize good behaviour than it is to call out the bad. Take time to recognize when workers practice inclusion. Recognize the efforts people make to reach this vision. This is how you change the culture.

This article originally appeared in Volume 60, Issue 2 of The Ontario Electrical Contractor Magazine. For more information on the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario’s DEI program, visit www.ecao.org or contact Cathy Frederickson at cfrederickson@ecao.org

Additional Information and Supporting Documentation: