Even before much of the nation erupted into protest at the brutal death of George Floyd last May, social justice was on the minds and tongues of Americans to a degree unseen since the turbulent Sixties. For much of the past decade, in corporate boardrooms and small firms across the United States, leaders assessed and addressed their organization’s commitment to DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

In this issue of The Friedman File, we examine how socially conscious AEC firms are creating DEI initiatives that contribute to improvements in employee morale and overall financial and operational performance.

The Business Case for DEI

Whether driven by a grassroots effort among rank-and-file employees or a top-down strategy, even the most selfless pursuit of practices and policies that further the goal of DEI come with an undeniable incentive — businesses that embrace DEI perform better.

Global management consulting firm McKinsey reported in 2019 that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. This is an improvement from its two prior reports; profitability levels were up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.

In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, top-quartile companies did even better, outperforming the bottom quartile firms by 36% in profitability, slightly up from 33% in 2017 and 35% in 2014.

Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group and Gartner have published data showing similar performance benefits for diverse firms. Other studies and anecdotal evidence support the theory that an active, sincere DEI program lifts employee morale and overall attitude. An article by staffinghub.com from October 2020 concluded, “Reinforcing strong DEI programs helps every employee to show up each day without fear that they can’t be their true selves.”

Despite these clear benefits, we have found that forward-thinking companies that implement DEI policies and practices are rarely motivated entirely by the business benefits. Internal feedback — gleaned through an employee satisfaction survey, employee review or organized appeal to management — is often the catalyst. In other cases, leadership becomes aware of the need to address DEI issues due to any number of factors, such as conversations with peers, response to national or global social movements or elements of a strategic business plan. For most, a DEI initiative is just the right thing to do.

D&I as a Journey

BSC Group, a 150-person multidiscipline engineering, planning, surveying, and landscape architecture firm based in Boston, formally instituted its Diversity and Inclusion Committee in August 2019.

“At BSC, we are thinking more broadly about hiring. We hire teammates…someone who will be part of our team and not simply the ‘best’ candidate based on more traditional criteria. This approach allows us to consider not only the typical criteria, but also the need for a diversity of experience, perspective, gender, appearance, beliefs and opinion needed to make the team better. It also furthers the culture we are building, because every one of us has an obligation to the team and to each individual to value and support one another,” says Sean O’Brien, PE, President and CEO. “Supporting and promoting diversity leads to learning and growth through greater understanding and to better, stronger teams.”

BSC’s results thus far prove the point. Its D&I program has grown to include five active Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Multicultural, New Professionals, Wellness, Women, and Working Parents. These employee-led teams foster leadership at all levels of the organization and provide a vehicle for staff to make their voices heard in a safe and supportive environment. The conversations, sharing and understanding that take place in the ERGs is exactly what’s needed in very challenging times. The firm is coming out of these challenging times thriving with a stronger culture.

O’Brien adds that D&I at BSC “begins with furthering a culture that values trust, learning, caring, innovation, performance and service to others. Culture will be what makes D&I integral to BSC. Of course, this is all aspirational, yet critically important. D&I is a journey, not a destination. There will always be more to learn, more to understand, and more to do to promote and encourage what is simply right. When all is said and done, we will have succeeded when everyone at BSC knows that they are valued.”

A Watershed DEI Moment

The DEI program at 50-person Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) was born from a remarkable admission made at the firm’s weekly all staff meeting. As Co-Founding Principal Shannon Nichol led the staff through a routine discussion about plans and plants, she sensed that something was different with her audience.

As the Zoom meeting ended, a young, black employee said, “It’s really hard for me to be in this meeting, to even be at work today. I am in pain.”

At that moment in early June, Seattle was the center of the George Floyd protests. Protesters were clashing with police nightly, and the smoke from burning buildings remained in the daytime air. Many of the people at GGN were angry and scared. And Nichol had missed the signs.

“Imagine the bravery it took to say that in that setting,” she says. “We’re privileged to have several people in our firm who are black, several people of color; we attract a pretty diverse group. I hadn’t addressed the protests at all yet, but we ended up having an honest, open conversation about it. After the meeting, I sent a note to everyone thanking them and apologizing. It wasn’t a normal day and I was sorry that I hadn’t changed the normal mode of our meeting. The situation transcended the usual policy of separating politics from the office.”

Nichol and Co-Founder Jennifer Guthrie knew they had to do something, but had no idea what. “I spent about a week talking with the people who spoke in the meeting, with people of color in the firm, trying to understand and create a balanced response – to do something without putting more of a burden on them.”

After some sleepless nights, many conversations, and an injection of common sense, the outline of a plan came together. It included leading by example, encouraging feedback and criticism from the staff, and questioning things they hadn’t questioned before.

“One thing we found out was how important social media was to the younger employees,” says Nichol. “They were very attuned to what we did and didn’t do on social media. To them, it’s the reality of what they do and where they work – how they take in the world. They wanted us to focus on social media, which is a push for me. But we saw how sincere and serious they were, so we took it seriously, too. They asked us to make a statement on Instagram to help the employees of color feel supported, and that may have been more important than anything.”

The DEI Plan Comes Together

They also collectively created GGN’s Draft Spatial Justice and Equity Action Plan, which the firm describes on its website home page (www.ggnltd.com) as a “living, mindfully incomplete draft that is being developed and confirmed with input from our entire staff.”

The document is summarized in six sections, focusing specifically on the office culture, hiring and employment, research and academic, project, and financial and communications actions.

The first step GGN took was relatively easy — donating money. After reviewing candidates and gaining consensus, the firm decided to donate to APRI San Francisco, which works to increase economic self-sufficiency for low-income and minority communities, and the City Kids Wilderness Project located near the firm’s satellite office in Washington, DC. GGN opened up the base donation at $10,000, with individual team members voluntarily contributing an additional $9,390 – yielding a donation of $9,695 to each organization.

The firm also revamped its recruiting approach. “We realized we weren’t sending job listings where we should be sending them if we truly want diversity,” says Nichol. “We weren’t doing the outreach to all the right places. We established connections with architecture programs at historically black colleges and universities, and connected with the Black Landscape Architects Network. We’d had folks involved with them, but we never leveraged them in hiring. Now we’ve made some strides.”

GGN’s Spatial Justice and Social Equity Work Group, an inclusive collection of employees created to advise the implementation and evolution of the plan, began methodically researching, evaluating and interviewing consultants to provide external guidance. “We agreed with some of the employees who said that we need external accountability from someone who specializes in this,” says Nichol. The consultant selection was imminent, but not final as of this article’s publication date.

Another gain the firm has made is its portfolio review program for underrepresented students and young professionals. To effect real change and make a true commitment to diversity, the group determined that it needed to reach its target audience sooner in their career, and even earlier in their lives. GGN developed a work group of volunteer members from throughout the company that organized a portfolio review for underrepresented student and young-professional groups. This included organizing volunteers, scheduling and outreach.

GGN also instituted a program to research and identify potential subconsultants, partner firms and contractors owned by underrepresented groups. The work group is improving outreach methods and goals for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and diversity in contract teams, subconsultants and collaborators.

There was an unexpected benefit as well, says Nichol. “In our projects, we’re intuitively asking better questions of ourselves. ‘Who is the community we’re designing for? Who are we overlooking? What are the walking patterns of the user groups? What are the site histories?’ We have, across-the-board, increased our completeness in those discussions in our projects.”

Nichol is thankful that GGN’s eyes were opened by a courageous employee in that fateful, otherwise routine all-staff meeting, and she is sure that many others in the industry will follow suit. “Firms are educating themselves and opening themselves up to looking at work differently and really having some hard conversations about how inclusive their design work has been in the past,” she says. “Clients are much more aware of these things; they know what we didn’t. It’s a promising sign in our industry, but firms that don’t position themselves to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are going to be left behind. They’ll be inconsequential.”

How is your firm addressing DEI? What are your challenges and lessons learned thus far? I’d love to hear from you at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.