Second opinion In our drive to be cutting-edge, we need to get rid of outmoded ideas. Let’s start with discrimination.
Resolutions for the new millennium:

  • defy the skills shortage

  • change the industry’s image

  • become an employer of choice

  • multiply your profits.

All these are compatible, but first you need the resolution, and then the action. Take the example of Mr Russell, who in his letter in Building (7 January) shared with us his struggle to change his management style as he became an “investor in people” – and of his trebled profits 18 months later.

The bookshops are full of self-help and personal development books, mainly about relationships. When will popular psychology come into the construction workplace? I predict that, early in this decade, people issues will come to the fore and progressive companies will discover the extra profits to be liberated through treating staff as individuals, through successfully recruiting and managing a diverse workforce, and through getting the “soft” issues right.

In the 1990s, we tackled quality assurance, the explosion of information technology, improved prefabrication, better standardisation and aligning the interests of customers and their suppliers. Now we need to update our people management methods to motivate, innovate, inspire, empower – and generate profits. Human resources policies have generally taken a back seat in construction, but they have the potential to drive the business forward.

The starting point for everyone responsible for others is to realise that, as managers, they have scope to change their behaviour. If there is any doubt, they should think about the person responsible for them. No one is immune, or perfect. Change is difficult and often uncomfortable, but extremely rewarding.

Bullying may be perpetrated under the guise of charm in a most insidious way

The next thing to consider is that there are widespread problems in the workplace which, if unchecked, diminish productivity dramatically.

A recent study reports that 93% of employees say that bullying goes on in their company. However, 80% of companies offer no training on dealing with or preventing bullying. These statistics are not construction-specific, but why should our industry be any different?

The report explained that victims do not always realise they are being subjected to bullying, which may be perpetrated under the guise of charm in a most insidious way. It happens in offices as well as on sites: it happens in some of our biggest and best-known organisations. Without counter-measures such as training and appeals procedures, perpetrators are free to continue and diminish the productivity of victimised staff, even forcing them to leave. This is only one way in which the workplace may become negative and stifling; there are many others.

Similarly, few firms in the industry give equal opportunities training to staff. I estimate that at least 80% of people in construction discriminate or cause offence to under-represented groups, often because they are not aware of their prejudice. Improved awareness through training could avoid much of this and could help those who overcome discrimination to take on more responsibility.

These are just two examples of how a laissez-faire attitude towards staff interaction can undermine the performance of part of a company, which in turn can ruin a hard-won reputation as well as depress profit. Policies, procedures and monitoring are needed, but most important is leadership.

I am on two initiatives that aim to support change in the way people are managed. Promoted by the Construction Industry Board, Change The Face Of Construction will support individuals in under-represented groups in construction, providing a web site, networking opportunities, information exchange and news, and offering assistance to employers to learn how to become employers of choice. In a market competing for the best resources in a diminishing pool, this will provide a competitive advantage.

The second initiative is the Respect For People working group of the Movement for Innovation, which is designing key performance indicators across a wide range of issues, including “diversity in the workplace”, a wider-reaching version of equal opportunities. It will also report mid-year on simple innovations that the construction industry should adopt.

So, perhaps the best new millennium resolution would be to find out more about Respect For People issues – and to act on what you learn. Those soaring profits might not be far behind.