Separate from either diversity or inclusion, equity is the notion that all are to be treated fairly and equally, with freedom from bias—it’s a term that fits in perfectly with the merit shop philosophy.
Regardless of the dictionary definition, each industry—and every company—differs in their understanding of these abstract concepts. Unlike ROI or website analytics, workforce engagement cannot be quantified by universal standards. So, what are these ideas? Why are they important? How do we qualify them?
Rodolfo “Rudy” Alanis, vice president and chief people officer at Helix Electric, believes that diversity, inclusion and equity are meant as complements of one another. While diversity is the act of “embracing a different view of the world,” Alanis says, “equity promotes fairness, and inclusion complements that by welcoming different views of the same reality.”
Kacie Brewer, inclusion and diversity manager at United Rentals, considers each of these pieces to be inextricable from one another. “You can’t have diversity without inclusion,” she says. “If inclusion isn’t at the forefront, what are we even doing?”
Brad Lewis, corporate director of supplier diversity at Hensel Phelps, feels it is as important to enumerate what equity is just as much as what it is not. “A lot of people get equality and equity confused,” he says. “Equality is giving people access to the same resources; equity is ensuring that each person has access to achieving goals.”
Lewis provides an illustration. Imagine three people measuring four-, five- and seven-feet tall are all given the same box to see over an eight-foot fence to watch a baseball game. While equality means they all receive a box, the first two people still won’t be able to watch the game. Some people need a different box.
CREATIVE WAYS TO CREATE EQUITY
According to Alanis, using only diversity and inclusion—without equity—as a standard isn’t enough. “Our industry deserves to have equal opportunities for everyone who wants to make a difference. This can only make us better,” he says.
Helix Electric is working toward this goal by incorporating equity into its vision, goals and social responsibility efforts. In addition, a company council has been established that is “responsible for ensuring all ethnic and social groups are represented, heard and considered in employee initiatives, particularly around hiring practices, development programs, compensation and equal opportunities,” Alanis says.
Diverse perspectives are actively sought out at United Rentals, where Brewer says their diversity programs are self-fulfilling, with a goal of attracting unique talent. With almost 20,000 employees spread across the world, ensuring a consistent work environment is something of a challenge. Brewer says an internal communication system, run by Facebook, ensures that the team is brought together. United Rentals has also deployed employee resource groups, which cater to various minority groups such as women or veterans. Face-to-face leadership and sensitivity training is also a pillar of the company’s strategy—but none of their internal or external initiatives are proprietary.
“You absolutely cannot do this alone in the D&I world,” Brewer says. “Sharing best practices should be a collaborative effort. You want to look at different organizations and industries so that you can bring best practices back to your organization.” Her innovative programming—and success with outreach (nearly 60% of company staff participate in the intranet system)—have paid off for Brewer, who was not only promoted in 2020, but has also earned ABC’s top diversity honors for the second year in a row.
“Whenever we apply for awards and indexes, it’s an opportunity to benchmark ourselves,” she says. “It’s also about being recognized, at that level in our industry.”
Equity not only benefits the individual, but also it benefits companies and, over time, the whole industry. Lewis asserts that, while the construction sector has work to be done, the results of inclusion, diversity and equity programs are demonstrated daily at Hensel Phelps. Besides being run as an employee-owned operation (so that team members have a literal stake in the game), the company is heavily invested in both internal and external diversity programs, such as ABC’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, which Lewis has chaired for the past two years.
“Hensel Phelps has provided me with the opportunity to serve the construction industry, and I’ve chosen to serve the industry by being active in ABC, which I believe is the top-notch organization when it comes to growing companies within the construction industry,” Lewis says.
START AT THE TOP
In the modern workplace, a good diversity program—or lack thereof—is indicative of the company itself, as well as its leadership.
“Culture and commitment starts at the top,” Alanis says. “Once there’s alignment of the type of company you want to be, set measurable goals and create accountability. Human resources can champion these goals, but accountability sits with every leader.”
When the program is really working, it will be apparent by the response from stakeholders, clients and employees. “For companies that don’t see the benefit or don’t understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, I say that if you look at how we’ve grown as an organization, the business case for working, supporting and helping to grow diverse businesses is apparent. It’s in our bottom line and the success we’ve had as an organization,” says Lewis.
Starting from ground zero with any enterprise can be intimidating—and when evaluating costs, the decision to add these programs is made even harder. The benefits, however, always outweigh those potential barriers. “For organizations, whatever size they are, the most important thing is to talk to the employees and really learn from the team,” Brewer says. “You may not have all of the policies or a rule book for this, like OSHA safety regulations. But as far as how you live and breathe inside of the organization, in terms of making investments in tools and technology, it has to be a culture of transparency and growth.”
Diversity may be the types of people in your organization, but equity comes into play when those diverse opinions are actively consulted and construction adjusts to the sound of those voices.
“You have to know the pulse of your organization,” Brewer says.
Construction is a far-reaching industry that affects communities nationwide. Policies like equity, therefore, have the potential for far-reaching results. “You have to understand the systematic impacts of the way our country is—and has been—for a really long time and how that has impacted certain races and individuals,” Lewis says. “We need to have a heightened focus on making sure we understand minorities in our organization and the equity associated with those impacts, individually and as a race of people.”
Contractors must be cognizant of their integral presence, which calls for programs that consider outside attitudes, changing perspectives and future potential.
“Delivering excellence in all we do is not just our slogan, it’s how we operate,” Lewis says. “The truth is in the execution, comments from clients and the contracting community, as well as how we engage with organizations like ABC. We’re not just talking about it—we execute in every way possible.”
Hensel Phelps’ community initiatives include a technical assistance program, which provides guidance to diverse businesses in construction, and the Head Start Bonding program, which assists women-owned and minority businesses with obtaining their first bond, amounting to over $100 million over 10 years.
United Rentals conducts similar outreach. One such example is a coaching initiative that works to develop careers of both members and company employees. Another is community events with an emphasis on career and culture.
“Supporting communities is important to understanding the customer and the employee,” Brewer says. “We touch so many cultures and communities. The norm for people in Texas is very different than the norm in Quebec. Tens of different languages are being spoken here in Houston. We address microcultures within our company culture because it’s all about the communities that we are part of.”
For its part, Helix Electric has established a company council and partners with numerous organizations, such as the National Black Contractors Association, National Women in Construction and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. This support is proof-positive of the company’s values.
“We want the best people in the industry no matter who they are or where they come from,” Alanis says. “So we invest in manager training, better recruitment processes and more community involvement every year.”
“It’s only when individuals feel comfortable, valued, stretched and recognized that a sense of belonging and pride is built—those two factors make people commit to something bigger than themselves,” he adds. “Diversity makes great individuals come together as outstanding teams.”
A major tool for giving stakeholders equal footing is the internet. While some groups—such as single parents—find evening classes a struggle, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired widespread adoption of online courses, resources and employee networks.
“Presenting virtually has allowed us to reach a bigger market,” Lewis says. “In order for us to grow, we have to be a cut above our competition and our leadership is not afraid to let us think outside of the box.”
COVID-19 offered United Rentals an opportunity to expand efforts including “microlearning moments,” which consist of explanatory videos concentrated on diversity; the START program for new hires, which includes online content; a learning library; and live Q&As.
JUST GETTING STARTED
“Diversity, equity and inclusion are values that are evident in the leadership, culture and mission of the 2020 National Diversity Excellence award-
winning companies,” says 2021 ABC National Chair of the Board of Directors Steve Klessig, vice president of architecture and engineering at Keller Inc. “We applaud these construction industry leaders for their unparalleled commitment to not only hiring and developing a diverse and talented workforce but also creating an inclusive, respectful and safe work environment. This dedication moves our industry forward, ensuring a bright future is built for the next generation of craft professionals.”
Because the diversity, inclusion and equity sphere is not as finite as regulated construction concerns, such as safety and training policies, those who work tirelessly to ensure the success of this sector have to be creative, flexible and—above all else—passionate.
In a role he grew into over 22 years, Lewis has now seen his company receive this award eight times. “What could be better,” Lewis asks. “To do something you’re truly passionate about and impact the industry as a whole?”
As an immigrant himself, Alanis believes that “talent can come from any background, and it takes an inclusive mind to bring out the best in every person.”
None of the current winners see the award as an end-game, either. “It’s always nice to be recognized, but we feel that our efforts are just getting started,” he says. “We have a long way to go when it comes to making our industry more equal, diverse and inclusive.”
The ultimate goal is to make these traits (diversity, inclusion and equity) inextricable from the industry. “We’re constantly growing, and the world is changing rapidly,” Brewer says. “We are a global economy, and we need to represent the communities in which we work and live.”
For those considering a new program, those who have just started a diversity program or even those whose initiatives need a refresh, Alanis suggests starting small. “Don’t wait for perfection,” he says. “Start small and imperfect—but make a stand starting at the top, and the rest will follow.”
Lewis recommends creating community allies, a staple of Hensel Phelps policy. “You need to understand the community. What if there are resources that will help support the growth of the business? Don’t be afraid to get engaged.”
No matter what, the key is to get started. “Everyone has to do it differently,” Brewer says. But: “Start the conversation.”
Originally published on Construction Executive, May 9. Used with permission.