Mortenson CEO on Creating a Hate Response Playbook

MA Mortenson’s headquarters is just 7 miles from the Minneapolis intersection where George Floyd was murdered in police custody in 2020.

The tragedy sparked violence and destruction on her doorstep and prompted Mortenson and five other contractors to lead the first week of inclusion in construction in 2021.

At that time, Mortenson CEO Dan Johnson was outspoken, telling workers that if they didn’t accept inclusion on the worksites, “you don’t have to work here.” The company lived up to these words: it dismissed the worker of a subcontractor on the Meta data center project in Eagle Mountain, Utah, for the installation of a slip node on the site.

Dan Johnson

Permission granted by Mortenson Construction

This year, Mortenson is co-chairing Building Inclusion Week with DPR, based in Redwood City, Calif. The event includes a series of videos and webinars each day.

Here, Construction Dive talks to Johnson about how the company has handled bias-driven incidents on its worksites and where it’s looking ahead.

Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CONSTRUCTION DIVING: What’s happening this year with Construction Inclusion Week?

DAN JOHNSON, MORTENSON: One thing we wanted to do was to make it easier for people to participate. The conferences are difficult, people have to travel to attend them physically. So instead, we’ve created events that people can connect to.

We really tried to scale it for people who are just starting their journey, as well as having rich content for people who are well into their journey.

I think one of the most interesting things we do is called the DEI maturity model assessment. If you are a business, you can complete a survey and find out where you are in the journey and what actions you need to take to start or continue your journey.

Mortenson took a stand against hate on construction sites. But as we saw in the Eagle Mountain, Utah data center project you are building for Meta, we hear about these incidents all the time. How would you rate the industry’s progress since last year’s CIW?

Certainly, the bias-driven events we see in the industry are nothing new. What is new about them is that a light is thrown on them. For years, if there was racist graffiti on a project site, you just went and painted over it and didn’t tell anyone. Now we’re shutting down multi-billion dollar construction sites because someone wrote graffiti. There is a positive context to this.

It seems counterintuitive, but that’s what’s going to stop these things from happening. In the long run, shedding light on this and making it so negative for the people who are doing it to the point where they’re being found out and losing their jobs and being ostracized from the industry is what’s going to change the things.

You mentioned that customers want that. You, Meta and other contractors have talked about having a response plan for these incidents. What does this plan look like?

We actually worked with Turner Construction and other industry counterparts who also build for Meta to create pretty much a common playbook for how we respond. It’s a lot like what happens if there’s a significant injury on one of our projects, where a senior manager responds within 24 hours with a visit to that job site.

It’s the same with these bias-driven events. When the noose was found at the Eagle Mountain site, our senior vice president immediately traveled to that site.

And other companies are doing the same. It’s the kind of subject where, like security, you break down the walls of competition. We will only improve if we join our competitors in saying, “No, this is not acceptable”.

You talk about shutting down multi-billion dollar yards when these things happen. What’s the business case for doing this?

Every construction company currently needs more staff. The place to find them is among the populations that have otherwise been excluded from our industry, and that is women and people of color.

And unless we create a more welcoming and inclusive environment, we will not succeed as businesses and as an industry in meeting the demand that is before us right now.

So there is a real business reason to understand this. It is essential for our industry to meet the demand.

Of course, this isn’t just a building problem – we also see discrimination in other areas. But the examples we see in construction are much more visceral. Why do you think that is?

The industry certainly has a long-standing reputation of being a white male-dominated culture. And that good old boy culture, in some parts of our industry, still exists.

Until we break this down, until we educate people and make them realize how important it is to accept everyone in the industry and welcome them and make them feel like they are part of it, these prejudices will persist.

That’s what Construction Inclusion Week is all about.

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