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A Chance to Change

AGC’S CULTURE OF CARE INITIATIVE MOVES THE NEEDLE ON INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY

BY AUTUMN CAFIERO GIUSTI

When two Black construction apprentices found a noose tied over a beam on their jobsite in Edmonds, Wash., Pastor Lawrence Willis became determined to make sure an incident like this never happened again.

Employees of T.A. Loving Company, a Culture of CARE participant, on a jobsite.

The workers were part of the pre-apprenticeship program Willis oversaw at Seattle Vocational Institute. The program’s participants are predominantly African American and persons of color.

“I said I can’t allow that to be on my projects, so we need to work out some kind of way to communicate with developers and contractors so this doesn’t happen,” says Willis, who is also a community liaison and manager of the Priority Hire program for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

To that end, Willis worked with the AGC of Washington to develop the Culture of CARE initiative, a program that challenges companies to take a visible step to make sure their workplaces are free from harassment, hazing and bullying. CARE stands for Commit, Attract, Retain and Empower.

Now, two years after its state-level launch in 2018, the program has a much bigger and even more important role to play — and at a critical moment. This spring, AGC of America expanded Culture of CARE into a nationwide initiative.

With the death of George Floyd setting off a national movement to support racial justice, more companies began speaking out in support of diversity and inclusion. With the Culture of CARE initiative in place, contractors now have a resource they can use to follow those words with actions.

The initiative invites companies to sign a pledge to commit leadership and resources to fostering a more inclusive work environment. From there, the initiative provides tools and resources to help companies talk to their employees, subcontractors, owners and partners about how they can create that environment.

“We want to make sure that companies know this is a continuous effort that requires a dedicated and ongoing commitment to maintaining a diverse, safe, welcoming and inclusive culture,” says Brynn Huneke, director of diversity and inclusion and member engagement, AGC of America.

RIGHT TIME, BY CHANCE

The nationwide launch of Culture of CARE was set to take place in March 2020 to coincide with AGC’s annual convention in Las Vegas. The association had to push back the rollout until May because of COVID-19. As it turned out, Culture of CARE made its national debut right as a historic racial justice movement was about to unfold.

Meeting taking place at Caddell Construction Company, one of the companies that has taken the Culture of CARE pledge. PHOTO COURTESY OF Caddell Construction Co.

As a result, Culture of CARE experienced substantial growth in a short amount of time. Since the national rollout, the number of companies taking the pledge has tripled — from 100 in May to more than 360 in early September, and the numbers continue to grow.

“So far, we are very pleased with the positive response we’ve received to Culture of CARE,” Huneke says.

The Culture of CARE pledge is open to all construction companies, not just AGC members. “Beyond being the right thing to do, building an inclusive culture that allows employees to thrive is a competitive advantage for recruitment and retention efforts,” Huneke says, adding that the benefits of inclusivity include increased employee productivity, a safer work environment and more innovation. “If you want the best and brightest as a part of your company, make sure they are coming to work every day in an environment where they feel valued, respected and heard.”

BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

Culture of CARE was born out of a call to action in response to the 2017 incident at the Edmonds, Wash. construction site. One of Willis’s students had made the shocking discovery and “was very upset. He didn’t know what to do,” he says.

Per Willis’s guidance, the student — along with a fellow apprentice who also saw the noose — reported the incident to their foreman and superintendent, only to have their claims dismissed. They told Willis that the foreman brushed off their concerns by making a comment that the noose wasn’t tied correctly and should have had another knot in it. Then the superintendent reportedly told them that his wife had bought him a purple noose for Christmas.

When Willis arrived at the jobsite to confront the superintendent himself, he found the noose sitting on the superintendent’s desk. “He was so nonchalant about it that I felt it would blow over, and nothing would be done about it,” he says.

In the weeks that followed, Willis reached out to David D’Hondt, the executive vice president of the AGC of Washington. Willis later learned that the company had let the foreman and superintendent go, but he remained concerned that there could be a repeat of this kind of behavior.

With Willis’s input, D’Hondt and AGC started formulating ideas for how to change the culture of construction and create a safe space where workers could report and recover from discriminatory incidents. The result was Culture of CARE.

Through the initiative, Willis says he’s noticed a difference in workplace attitudes, and companies seem to be working to be more inclusive. “Dave and the AGC grabbed a hold of this and took a personal approach to changing the culture of construction,” Willis says. “That’s what really touched me as a Black man who’s been dealing with racial injustice.”

STEPS TOWARD DIVERSITY, INCLUSION

Around the time AGC of Washington was getting Culture of CARE off the ground, AGC of America was working behind the scenes to develop a diversity and inclusion program to implement on the national level.

Employees of participating companies in the Culture of CARE program can don hard hat stickers, promoting their commitment to the initiative. PHOTO COURTESY OF Hensel Phelps

The group spearheading this work was the AGC Diversity & Inclusion Council, which the association created to provide a platform for members to drive diversity and inclusion initiatives. The Council is governed by a Steering Committee composed of AGC members.

The committee’s first big project was to develop a report on the Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion in Construction. The 2018 report cites a McKinsey study that found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have financial returns above national industry means; that likelihood is 33 percent for companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity.

“That report really laid the groundwork for AGC to educate members about the value that a diverse workforce and inclusive culture brings to a company,” Huneke says. “Following the release of that report, developing a program that helps companies create inclusive cultures was the logical next step for us, and Culture of CARE fit right into that objective.”

Kari Karst, president of BX Civil & Construction, and Shannon Gustine, director of operations for Hensel Phelps in the Pacific Northwest, participated in these discussions. Both companies, members of multiple AGC chapters, were among the first few organizations to sign the Culture of CARE pledge.

For Karst, advancing the initiative has been part of a personal mission. As a female business owner in a male-dominated industry, Karst reached a point in her career where she felt it was her responsibility to leverage her position to become a powerful force for change. She felt called to join the Steering Committee to help move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

“You’re trying to make your way and be successful, so you kind of learn to overlook certain things,” Karst says. “But when you reach a certain point, you think, ‘Wow, that’s not really right. So how do I lift up other women? Racial minorities? People who feel disengaged?”

Gustine believes that setting consistent expectations across the industry gives companies and employees a necessary framework for how to create equity inclusion on jobsites and in workplaces.

“The first step is to recognize that as an industry, we have a problem,” Gustine says. “Change needs to start and come directly from leadership, extending throughout organizations to the craft level. That is the only way we will see true change as an industry. Culture of CARE gives us that ability to speak with a consistent voice and expectations.”

And at this point in history, Karst says, the timing couldn’t be better. “A lot of companies think they’re doing OK,” she says. “But maybe OK isn’t enough. And I think their eyes got opened up to that.”

Culture of CARE Action Steps
1. Commit to creating a Culture of CARE and taking the pledge.
2. Attract a more diverse workforce.
3. Retain skilled workers and diversity.
4. Empower every employee to promote inclusion and diversity.
For more information and to take the Culture of CARE pledge, visit www.buildculture.org.