The time is now

Feb 25, 2019

In our industry, diversity and inclusion are dawning, so seize the day by incorporating an open mindset throughout your firm.

In her Dec. 10 article in The Zweig Letter, “Diversify, soon” Christina Zweig Niehues called on the AEC industry to act more aggressively in diversifying its workforce. I couldn’t agree with her more, and “soon” can’t come soon enough for our industry.

Here are three compelling reasons:

  1. It’s the right thing to do. Industry leaders must be purposeful about diversifying their workforces from the top down and not treat diversity as a “check the box” exercise.
  2. The younger generation of professionals, which will make up 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025, expects diversity and inclusion to be the norm, not the exception, in the workplace.
  3. A diverse and inclusive culture is good for the bottom line. Deloitte Insights recently cited a study that said inclusive organizations are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes than non-inclusive companies.

Over three years ago, VHB accelerated its diversity and inclusion initiatives by intentionally incorporating it in our strategic business plan. While we always strived to hire and inspire employees to realize their career goals here, what’s different now is we have set goals, objectives, and metrics to keep us in check. As the chief people officer at VHB, it’s my job to see that the company follows through and delivers on our goals. Managing diversity and inclusion is, in many ways, an unmapped territory in the AEC industry. Below, I’ve summarized six main takeaways from our experience so far:

  1. Commit to understanding the differences between diversity and inclusion. They are different but must work together. Diversity speaks to the makeup of an organization’s people – gender, race, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, socio-economic backgrounds, thinking style, and personality type – while inclusion reflects how the organization engages them. In a diverse and inclusive work environment, people with very different life experiences are valued equally. They’re encouraged to have their voices heard, and opinions are considered – even when expressing an unpopular idea. The organization is focused on meeting the needs of the individual and not so much an HR-centered initiative.
  2. Take an inventory and set baseline measurements. Every organization’s diversity and inclusion initiative will look different based on its strengths, weaknesses, and culture. Taking an inventory of your organization’s policies and practices – such as talent development, compensation, training, and recognition and rewards, will identify opportunities for improvement and help set a baseline to measure progress. It may be overwhelming to learn how far you need to go, but doing so is necessary to ensure future decisions are more objective instead of subjective.
  3. Include diversity and inclusion in strategic planning. Incorporating diversity and inclusion into the strategic plan demonstrates to employees how important they are to the organization’s growth and success. It also promotes a sense of shared responsibility among employees – because making diversity and inclusion work won’t happen if only the leadership or HR teams are held accountable.
  4. Become conscious of unconscious biases. We all have biases, and it’s important to acknowledge them and understand how much they factor into decision-making. This can be uncomfortable. Just the other day I was reviewing marketing collateral with our team. Someone recommended to change a picture because the man pictured didn’t look “polished enough.” Our team considered this feedback carefully and realized there may have been an unconscious bias behind the comment. The picture stayed. Unconscious biases come in all shapes and sizes. That’s why our next step is to roll out unconscious bias training to help make employees more aware of biases so they can make better decisions.
  5. Shake up your HR department. We created a new People and Culture Department which is not just another name for human resources. The People and Culture Department focuses on the entire employee experience, from recruiting to hiring to retention and professional development. It truly is about creating an environment for each employee to realize their full potential in all our 30 locations along the East Coast. So far, we are receiving very positive feedback about this new department.
  6. Create an Employee Resource Group. The purpose of this employee-led group is to generate ideas and practices for educating and engaging our people while serving as a “lens” into how VHB is doing in its diversity and inclusion initiatives. For example, group members made our communications team aware of a lack of diversity on our social media platforms which led us to include more inclusive representations of employees in subsequent posts.

Benjamin Franklin said it best: “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” Let’s continue to focus on making diversity and inclusion work in our organizations and share best practices, lessons learned, and success stories. Together, we can make real progress moving the needle in the AEC industry – our success depends on it.

Keri Kocur is the chief people officer of Watertown, Massachusetts-based VHB. She can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.