It's easy to pigeonhole people according to who they are, or where they come from. "They are from x country so they must be bricklayers". "He comes from z country so he's a scaffolder". “They are dressed poorly so they aren’t educated.”
These days more women are entering the industry and they often face problems getting employment in some jobs. Sometimes there are all kinds of excuses why women shouldn’t be employed on construction projects.
I came from a country where people of a certain colour were discriminated against and were unable to fill some positions on our construction projects. These laws even restricted where they could live and work. This was the law in the country. Their colour limited the education they could get. Of course this meant we had to import people (of the “right colour”) from other countries to do the work. Even when the laws were repealed we still faced skill shortages because the majority of the population suffered from poor education. But, sometimes even today in many countries people are discriminated against because of their colour or ethnicity.
In some countries people are even discriminated against because of their religion. Why should your personal religious choices impact what job you can or can't do if it doesn't impact on your work ethic and quality?
But discrimination also works the other way, where particular individuals are favoured, promoted, or paid larger salaries, because they speak the right language, maybe even say the ‘right’ things, or are simply friends of the boss. Nepotism is a form of discrimination.
We all take our preconceptions with us. The way we were brought up, the environment we grew up in, our past experiences, and of course the people we associate with all contribute to the way we act and operate. We are all guilty of being racist to some degree. We often talk about people in terms of their nationality, country of origin, gender, colour or ethnicity. We even focus on the way people dress. Sure being dressed appropriately does show respect. But how many of you would offer a homeless person a job, if they walked onto your project dressed in dirty torn clothes. There are even some who won’t offer a person a job because they have weird hairstyles or tattoos. Indeed, I was surprised to hear a few years back that the fact that I have a beard was seen as a reason not to promote me – there I thought it was for other reasons!
It’s when we favour one person over another because of their backgrounds, appearance, colour, gender or nationality, rather than their skills and experience that it is really harmful. When we make judgement calls based on our perceptions of the person’s ability which are based purely on their appearance, rather on their actions, qualification and experience. When we pigeonhole somebody based on our expectations of that person because of their background and ethnicity, rather than finding out more about how they can contribute to our projects and company.
What are the risks of discrimination?
Construction is crying out for good people. We never seem to have sufficient skilled people. We need all the good people we can get, and can't afford to discriminate against someone because of their race, culture, religion, appearance, gender or colour. We need the best people working for us, we need the best people filling the top positions. We can’t afford to employ incompetent people. We cannot afford to ignore a sizable chunk of the population based solely on our preconceptions (or someone else’s ideas) of their abilities.
But we also need to focus our training on the best people, those who are willing to learn, those who want to achieve more, those that can play an important role on our projects, and more importantly on our future projects – irrespective of their identity. Providing opportunities to a person who might not receive the same breaks elsewhere can often engender loyalty and gratefulness which more than repays the company’s investment in that person – indeed, the company was usually amply rewarded by those that I provided opportunities to for advancement.
Putting a person in a particular box or group, or labelling them according to our preconceived notions of where they should go and what they can or can’t do, stifles innovation. But it is also hurtful to people and it demotivates them.
Elevating or promoting a person on reasons which aren’t based on their skills and experience alone means we don’t have the best person doing the job. We possibly have the wrong person doing the job who is even going to harm our projects and company. But, it also often creates a sense of entitlement. People who know that they’ll advance based purely on their colour, or who they know, often become lazy, because they know they don’t have to strive to prove themselves.
Fortunately, in many countries discrimination is frowned upon, even a criminal offense. Companies that are guilty of discriminatory practices could encounter bad publicity, the wrath of the public and even sizable monetary fines.
Unfortunately, those companies found-out with discriminatory behaviours often swing to the other extreme, where people are promoted from the group that was previously discriminated against, based purely on their colour and ethnicity. Indeed, discrimination hasn’t been done away with but merely reversed in a knee-jerk reaction to pacify complainants. Language becomes so restrictive so as not to offend someone that things that should be said aren’t said. People that aren’t performing aren’t disciplined in case it’s seen as being discriminatory or racist. But, a company that treats all employees equally based only on their knowledge, experience and work ethic, and where their employees understand this and trust management, usually don’t have to fear being accused of racist behaviours and can engage in open, honest and even robust communication with all employees. Companies that are training and providing opportunities to all employees equally, based on their work ethic and commitment, irrespective of their background, will find that with time their senior management will be representative of their workforce and of the general population. There will be no need to promote someone who isn’t capable for the sole reason that it satisfies demands for management to be more representative. Given opportunities and training good people will naturally rise to senior management positions.
Of course, often a sizable percentage of clients are also supposedly of the “wrong” gender, colour, ethnicity, class, background or religion. Those that discriminate and won’t work for these people are severely cutting their market place. But, most discriminatory people are hypocritical and are happy to practice discrimination only when it suites them. Nevertheless, many customers see through this pretence. After all, if someone engages in discriminatory practices every day in the workplace they’ll often find it difficult to hide their disdain for a person from the 'wrong' grouping or someone they don’t approve of, even if that person is now their client. A company that has management dominated by individuals from a particular group (colour, gender, language, ethnicity) in a multicultural society probably practices discrimination, even if they say otherwise. Can a client expect to be treated fairly if the company isn’t treating their own employees fairly?
Maybe we aren’t directly guilty of discrimination, but there are others on our projects who discriminate against individuals, who favour some over others, that make lewd, or racist comments, or even tell inappropriate jokes which could offend others in the work place. Turning a blind eye to these behaviours on our projects is as bad as if the comments or actions came directly from us.
People who are offended by these remarks become distracted, even demotivated. It is a cause for conflict. In some cases, it can even lead to people leaving the company, and in the extreme case even suicide. But, people who make these inappropriate comments could even go further with there discriminatory ways, ignoring the best person for promotion because of their colour or gender. Ignoring, discriminatory remarks and behaviours often emboldens the individuals to discriminate further.
We need to stand up to discriminatory behaviour.
It is easy to discriminate against individuals. Often, we do it subconsciously without even knowing it. We base our opinions and choices on our perceptions rather than facts. Unfortunately, there are also many who actively pursue discriminatory practices. But, doing so means that our projects will suffer, we won’t necessarily be employing the best person, we won’t be promoting the best people, we may be offending potential clients, we’re not fostering unity and team work on our projects, employees will become demotivated, some employees will leave in frustration, while those who are favoured often become slack knowing that they are protected because of who they know, or because of their skin colour.
We live in multicultural and multi-talented societies. Construction everywhere faces a dearth of good, experienced and skilled people. We cannot afford to reject someone, or favour another, based purely on our perceptions or our personal likes. Next time that poorly dressed homeless person comes to your project looking for work, take the time to find out what their skills and experience is, who knows what gem may be hidden under that untidy experience. Don’t automatically judge a person by their outward appearance.
But equally, ensure that those working with you are as committed as you are to fostering a workplace that is non-discriminatory, a harmonious workplace, with equal opportunities for everyone.
Everyone deserves an equal chance.
How has discrimination in the workplace impacted you?
Are there discriminatory practices on your projects?
'Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors' is another of Paul's useful books.
Paul has recently published 'Construction Management: From Project Concept to completion'.
These books are available on Amazon and other online book stores.
Paul publishes articles regularly on LinkedIn and his website.
Paul writes regular articles for other websites, gives lectures, mentors, and is available for podcasts and interviews.
© 2018 This article is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission from the author.