Forward Momentum for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

by Janice Sutton

It’s a monumental task to improve workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices and create sustainable cultural change within the electrical communications, construction and maintenance industry. Education is the path to success, and we’re grateful to be on it.

Lena Singh, Manager, Labour, SYMTECH Innovations

Earlier this year, the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) was awarded $1.7 million in Skills Development Funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development for the delivery of a year-long DEI program for its contractor members and workforce.

The DEI education program, under the empathetic and expert tutelage of Alex Willis of Leadership Surge, is well underway, and ECAO invited a couple of participants to a virtual sit-down to talk about their experiences with the program thus far and their views on DEI in the workplace.

Lena Singh brings deep expertise to her role of Manager, Labour at SYMTECH Innovations, where she has responsibility for project crew recruitment, engagement and labour relations. SYMTECH, a provider of electrical and communications cabling services, is committed to embracing and fostering a culture of inclusion.

Lena also brings a depth of experience in DEI leadership to her responsibilities as Co-Chair of ECAO’s DEI Committee. Forged in January 2021, the Committee, under Lena’s and Co-Chair Ken Nepaul’s guidance, works to advise, educate and provide DEI-related resources to its contractor members.

Steve Fox, Business Manager, IBEW Local 105

Steve Fox, Business Manager, IBEW Local 105

Steve Fox has led the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW’s) Local 105 (Hamilton) as Business Manager since his election in June 2020, with responsibility for day-to-day operations, bargaining oversight, and growth and development of Canada’s longest-standing IBEW local.

An Electrician and forward thinker, Steve came to the Business Manager role with three priorities – health of workers, jobs and diversity – and firmly believes that Local 105 membership should reflect the diversity of its community. He is deliberate in his efforts to strengthen diversity among Hamilton’s unionized contractors through engagement with immigrant work centres, Aboriginal groups, the local YWCA and the city’s schools.

So, why DEI? Why is it important to ECAO and its members and to the future of our industry to work toward a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture? One hopes we can all agree that eliminating discrimination based on race, age, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and other categories of bias is a worthy and imperative human goal. But why is it an important business objective, too?

When it comes to the impact on a business’s ability to prosper – to attract and retain skilled people and successfully bid for work – a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion will undeniably affect the bottom line. And in more ways than one. As Lena and Steve explained, there are clear and direct links between DEI and business success.

Employees must feel respected, valued and welcomed, and that can’t happen without inclusion, Lena shared. Among the most important things about DEI within an organization is the acute feeling of belonging. “Discrimination happens at a people level – the most important resource in any business – and when it happens, it devalues the relationship employees have with their company,” she said. “The resulting losses due to lower productivity, absenteeism and staff turnover cannot be overstated. And let’s not forget the reputational cost, which may be harder to measure but is no less real.”

As Steve shared, clients want to see themselves reflected in your workforce. “From a pure business perspective, without significant diversity in your business, you are probably not connecting with all the communities in your area. By having diversity built in, you are going to appeal to a wider group of clientele.” Simply put, DEI provides more access and opportunities.

Given the increase in messaging, discussion and education on DEI in our communities in recent years, we might expect that the current environment in the construction industry has progressed – that there is more empathy out there now for marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Lena believes so. She sees progress on DEI at SYMTECH and in communities such as the Town of East Gwillimbury, where she leads DEI efforts. “People have long understood there were differences, but the idea of taking personal responsibility for making others feel valued and welcomed didn’t resonate.” Lena is optimistic that incremental change is occurring – that people are beginning to understand they must educate themselves and step up when they see intolerance and discrimination. SYMTECH has inked a commitment to DEI that employees – from labourers to skilled trades to senior executives – are held accountable to, including that, “Employees have a responsibility to treat others with dignity and respect at all times, and to exhibit conduct that reflects inclusion.”

And if actions truly speak louder than words, the fact that all SYMTECH’s people leaders, including managers, supervisors, foremen and superintendents, are currently undergoing DEI training speaks volumes about a real investment in sustainable cultural change.

Steve also sees progress in the industry and shared that, collectively, we have come a long way and made significant strides. But he cautions that the industry is still decades behind optimum DEI culture. Efforts are being made on many fronts at Local 105, he advises, including a drive towards increased diversity among new apprentices and the Local’s commitment to an antiracism proclamation, a statement signed by the Officers of Local 105 and shared with all members that reads, in part, “It is not enough to condemn racism. We need to confront the systemic practices and discriminatory bias that exists in so many integral parts of our lives, educate ourselves and others, and advocate for actual change that benefits all our brothers and sisters and their families. In solidarity, as the Officers of IBEW Local 105, we ask the members of IBEW Local 105 to hold yourselves accountable and be part of the anti-racist movement.”

Clear and unflinching language, and most certainly a step in the right direction.

As shared at the outset, it’s an immense task to bring about sustainable cultural change in workplace DEI practices within our industry. What’s slowing us down?

A few things, according to Lena. Projects come with strict deadlines and budgets, so focus tends to be on efficiency, cost and safety. When you introduce a DEI lens, leaders may look at it as ‘here’s another thing I have to do.’ With DEI education, leaders can understand that diversity, equity and inclusion mean access to a broader talent pool, increased personal responsibility among employees, enhanced access to contract opportunities and much more, enabling DEI to go from ‘another thing to do’ to a commitment to understanding and acceptance among teams. And when that exists, racism, sexism and other forms of workplace harassment are not tolerated by anyone, and workers feel confident in stepping up to say, ‘hey, stop’ without fear of being singled out when they see unacceptable behaviours.

It’s a deeply distressing fact that 22 Ontario construction workers died in 2021. As Steve points out, a lot of lip service is being paid toward the trades as respectful, good career choices. If we want to truly attract and retain skilled workers, he said, we need to work with industry and government to make workplaces safer. From that foundation, we can be deliberate and confident in moving forward with education and recruitment efforts with community partners such as the YWCA, Aboriginal groups and immigrant centres.

Earlier this year, with the full support of leaders, Local 105 launched the FUSE Committee (FUSE reflecting ‘female, unity, support, empowerment’), whose mandate is to support, inspire and educate Local 105 members on understanding and respecting the contributions of underrepresented groups such as women and LGBTQIA+ communities. The Committee’s efforts are just getting off the ground, Steve advised, and the potential for real, positive and sustainable change to a more inclusive, equitable and diverse organization is immense.

We do a great disservice to workers and businesses by promoting employees to leadership positions based on seniority and/or workplace experience and then don’t give them the critical education they need to effectively lead people. Leadership requires its own unique set of skills, and, without training to help new leaders understand how to motivate, empower and provide timely, effective feedback to employees, how can we expect workers to understand expectations, grow and learn, and adhere to an organization’s evolving expectations?

Alex Willis, Founder and CEO of Leadership Surge

At SYMTECH Innovations, four leaders have participated in ECAO’s DEI training program so far, and Lena advises that Alex Willis’ no-holds-barred approach makes an immediate and clear business case for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Lena spoke to her colleagues after the sessions for their views. “They got engaged and excited, and shared that it made them look at themselves as leaders in a different light. They hadn’t thought about DEI in this way, but learned that it can make managing easier and make people more productive and happier.”

Steve and five Local 105 staff members, including administrative staff and union reps, attended the DEI sessions, and Alex had the group quickly at ease with a question that had them thinking about diversity in a real-world and less abstract manner. “In a session full of mostly white males, Alex asked about the diversity in the room,” related Steve. “Attendees didn’t see it at first but, with Alex’s guidance, began to recognize that the varying ages, experiences, socio-economic differences and backgrounds represented in the group brought considerable diversity to the room. From that point, everyone’s defenses came down, and they felt comfortable contributing.”

Alex Willis and ECAO DEI training participants

Education is indeed critical to moving the needle forward toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive societies and workplaces. Where a lack of knowledge and understanding lives, ignorance and presumption thrive. Expectations for a respectful workplace start at the top, and the onus is on leaders to set, share and hold employees accountable to policies and expected behaviours. But it is incumbent upon each of us to seek understanding and treat others with dignity and respect and to be each others’ keeper and speak up for those whose voice is not being heard.

In closing, Lena offered some final guidance on what we, as individuals, can do to help create lasting change: “If you are coming from a place of authenticity, if you are willing to put yourself out there to be vulnerable, to say you don’t have all the answers, but you’re willing to learn, people will understand. Be humble and try to do the right thing.”

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

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