Given the unremitting skilled labor shortage plaguing the roofing industry and the national conversation sparked by the #Metoo movement, the importance of embracing and fostering diversity in the workplace has never been more salient than now. 

Although it may sound to some employers like nothing more than a lofty buzzword concept lacking any real, practical relevance to their day-to-day business, in reality, workplace diversity should be a top priority for every company given the many tangible, direct benefits it can provide. However, implementing diversity initiatives doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges.

What is Workplace Diversity?

Diversity in the workplace is more than simply meeting set quotas for employee race or gender categories. Rather, it refers to an organization’s intentional efforts to employ individuals from varied demographics, races, genders, ages, religions, sexual orientation and socioeconomic statuses in order to build a workforce that’s more representative of society as a whole. This brings new perspectives to the table and creating multiple points of view within the organization.  Workplace diversity also includes fostering a way of thinking and operating that encourages diverse thinking, actions, and problem-solving and promotes tolerance, acceptance, respect, and teamwork. 

The Benefits

First, diversity recruitment initiatives can help companies combat the construction labor shortage. Competition for attracting skilled talent in the roofing industry is at an all-time high. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2018 labor force statistics, there are approximately 7.5 million workers in the U.S. construction industry. Of these 7.5 million workers, approximately 90% are men, while only 10% are women. Hispanic/Latino workers make up 30.7% of the construction industry workforce, while African American workers total 6.2% and Asian workers account for only 2% of all construction workers.

From 2018 to 2028, employment of roofers is projected to grow by 12%, 7% more than all other occupations.  Embracing and implementing diversity initiatives is a key component — and in some labor markets, the only realistic option — for combatting the ongoing skilled labor shortage.

Next, employees who feel that they do not fit in at their jobs or feel unwelcomed, unwanted, harassed or discriminated against are much more likely to leave their jobs in search of another more inclusive workplace. Thus, diversity and inclusiveness initiatives can lower employee turnover by helping employees feel more welcomed, valued, and invested in their jobs.

IRE Session WE15

Title: Legal Issues Surrounding Diversity in the Workplace
Speakers: Marci Britt, Cotney Construction Law
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Room: C141

Having a diverse group of employees can help companies target and market to a more diverse customer base, thus opening doors into various market sectors that were previously closed. Workplace diversity also leads to greater innovation, increased creativity, and better overall decision-making. A homogeneous group of people is more likely to have the same or similar perspectives, life experiences, thought processes, and problem-solving approaches. In contrast, a group of employees with diverse traits, backgrounds, and life experiences can contribute different and unique perspectives leading to more options, new ideas, and more creative and innovative solutions. Having a wider variety of ideas and talents to work with allows a company to deliver better products and services, which in turn yields better financial performances.

Studies consistently show that companies practicing diversity and inclusion financially outperform non-diverse companies by 15% or more. A 2017 study by McKinsey & Company revealed that companies with the highest gender diversity outperformed companies with the least gender diversity by 21%, and companies with the highest ethnic diversity financially outperformed companies with the least ethnic diversity by 33%.  Simply stated, greater diversity equals a better bottom line.

Legal Issues

Despite the proven benefits, implementing and fostering diversity initiatives in the workplace does not come without its challenges. First, with greater diversity comes the possibility of internal resistance, opposition, and push-back, which can in turn lead to more instances and complaints of discrimination and harassment. Federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, religion or creed, national origin or ancestry, sex, pregnancy, age, physical or mental disability, genetic and medical information, and veteran status.

Most states and many municipalities have added protections for numerous other categories, including marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, transgender status, whistleblower status, workers compensation claimants, and medical marijuana users. Federal and state laws also prohibit retaliation against employees who submit complaints of discrimination or harassment or help another employee with their claim of discrimination or harassment. Additionally, employers must be aware of and understand their legal duty to provide reasonable disability and religion accommodations for employees when required.

Given these legal obligations, as part of their employment diversity efforts, it is imperative for employers to provide thorough diversity and anti-harassment training to all employees and managers and to adopt and enforce clear, robust written policies expressly prohibiting all discrimination or harassment on the basis of an individual’s membership in any protected class or otherwise.

Company policy should also provide comprehensive reporting procedures for employees to know how and to whom they should report any claims of discrimination or harassment they experience or witness and should assure employees that their complaints will be taken seriously and promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigated and dealt with appropriately.

Embracing diversity and building a workplace culture of inclusiveness also requires buy-in and support from the top down so that managers feel empowered to enforce the company’s policies, and employees trust that they can speak up without fear of retaliation.

Secondly, more than anywhere else, in the construction industry, increased workplace diversity can also lead to safety issues that must be anticipated and pro-actively addressed. Language barriers, miscommunications, and misunderstandings, in particular, can jeopardize employee safety on the jobsite, so employers must provide safety trainings and information in a manner that employees can fully understand, in both the language used as well as the vocabulary. If an employee’s vocabulary is limited, then training must account for the limitation. Additionally, OSHA requires safety manuals, publications, emergency action plans, and toolbox talks to be translated for employees for whom English is not their primary language.

While workplace diversity efforts can present a number of challenges, it’s imperative that employers understand and implement the steps they can take to mitigate their risk of running into these challenges.

Author’s note: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.