The construction industry is hardcore enough, said Peter Davoren, CEO and president of Turner Construction Co., without adding discrimination into the mix. That’s why the company has made an inclusive work environment and antibias education part of its mission.
As the country deals with antiracism protests and debate, sparked by the May death of George Floyd, a Black man, during his arrest by the Minneapolis police, the construction industry has also been touched by the same issue.
During the last few months, reports of racist graffiti and nooses being placed around several U.S. and Canadian jobsites have made their way to the press, with owners and contractors vowing to punish those responsible.
Turner shut down two large Ohio projects for antibias training this summer — a $1.7 billion Facebook data center project in New Albany and the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium in Cincinnati — after the company discovered graffiti containing discriminatory slurs around those jobsites.
Although Turner did not provide details as to exactly how much time was lost on those projects, Davoren told Construction Dive that workers on jobs where training is considered necessary usually stay home for one day while organizers prepare, come into work the next day for an eight-hour training and then resume work on the jobsite the following day.
The New York City-based company does not take a shutdown lightly, he said, and it is intended as a “clear message that we understand the anger and pain felt by so many people as a result of long-standing injustice.” The $12 billion firm is the second-largest in the country, according to this year's ENR 400, which ranks construction companies by revenue.
Across its 1,500 active projects, Davoren said, there have been an average of three or four reported race-based or anti-Semitic incidents per week and that the decision as to whether to shut down the project or simply to incorporate antibias training during regular work hours is made on a case by case basis, determined by the circumstances and frequency.
Turner stopped work on a project in Des Moines, Iowa, he said, for five days to accommodate 400 workers, who were trained in eight-hour sessions in groups of 10 to 12.
On that job, Davoren said, Turner made a commitment to owners to absorb any scheduling delays.
“It was that important,” he said.
Whether an incident requires a shutdown or not, he said, all are addressed using the company’s zero-tolerance policy and a strategy focused on "active caring," both of which were born about five years ago when Turner executives decided they wanted to promote an environment “filled with respect and dignity,” Davoren said.
“When you have a community on the jobsite that’s actively caring for each other, you’re safer,” he said.
Thus far, he said, clients, trade partners and workers have been overwhelmingly supportive of Turner’s antibias efforts, but the company has still seen some pushback against these policies.
Turner reached out to a competitor and asked the company to join its antiracism campaign, but the rival contractor turned down the invitation. They said, ‘No. This is not a fight we want to fight right now,’” Davoren said.
That same contractor recently accepted Turner’s repeat suggestion to adopt a proactive antiracism program after Turner said it was going to propose its policy to an owner they have in common.
On a project in Seattle, Davoren said, Turner fired a subcontractor that refused to participate in trying to find the root cause of a racist incident, despite one of its employee’s involvement.
Turner maintains a hotline that anyone can call to report an incident, and once that call is made, he said, the company starts an investigation, just as if it were a safety issue or accident.
“The response common denominator is always zero tolerance,” he said.
Out in front
Because subcontractors make up about 90% of Turner’s 110,000-person jobsite workforce, it’s that much more important that subcontractors be on board with the policy. The incidents at the Ohio projects were subcontractor-related. This is the language subcontractors find in their Turner contracts:
It is the goal of Contractor to promote a work environment at the Project that is free from harassment of any kind. Contractor has ZERO TOLERANCE for harassment, including harassment on the basis of race, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, transgender status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, childbirth and other pregnancy-related conditions, color, national origin, ancestry, age, religious creed, citizenship, marital status (including registered domestic partners), parental status, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, military or veteran status (including protected veteran status), or any other characteristic or status protected by law.
Subcontractor agrees to be bound by the Policy Statement on Harassment referenced in Article XXIII below, and any violation or suspected violation of such policy by Subcontractor or any of its officers, agents, servants, employees, subcontractors or suppliers shall be considered as Subcontractor’s failure to perform its obligations under the terms and conditions of this Agreement. Such failure shall be considered adequate and justifiable grounds for Contractor to effectuate its rights and remedies under the provisions of Article XI of this Agreement. Subcontractor shall actively promote a harassment-free work environment among its officers, agents, servants, employees, subcontractors, and suppliers.
Turner enters into approximately 25,000 subcontracts per year.
"When you have a community on the jobsite that’s actively caring for each other, you’re safer.”
CEO and president, Turner Construction
Moving forward, Turner also plans to train new hires — about 400 to 500 this year — about the history of racial discrimination as part of their onboarding process, Davoren said.
“They’ll get that ingrained just like safety training,” he said
The company also hosts weekly webcasts during which it addresses racial incidents with its 10,000 employees.
“We talk about each racial incident or any hatred incident that happened during the week,” Davoren said,” and how we combated it so that we can create models for everyone in the future.”
And then on Sept. 14, as part of a regular safety stand-down event, Davoren said, Turner will reinforce its antiracism policies.
“We’re putting racial inequality and hateful graffiti at the top of the list for this stand-down,” he said.
More importantly perhaps, is that by taking a leadership role in the battle against racism, Turner is implicitly encouraging other contractors to do the same.
“I just think getting out in front of this thing is very, very important,” Davoren said. “I think that others will rally around it.
“Every time that we've had an incident and we've gone very deep into the zero-tolerance [policy], the unions are behind us. The trade associations are behind it. The subs are behind it. The workers are behind us. The owners are behind us. They just want someone out in front.”