How Construction Contractors Can Build Employee Trust

Keeping good employees requires building trust between employee and contractor in order to retain employees longer

Adapt the SWOT method to gain employee trust: spend time with, work with, open up to questions, and teach consistency.
Adapt the SWOT method to gain employee trust: spend time with, work with, open up to questions, and teach consistency.

For many contractors building employee trust has become a much larger issue than in years past. Consider just a few reasons why many “millennials” find it hard to consider construction as a viable career choice:

  • The construction industry as a whole projects a less-than-positive image.
  • The reputation of contractors is to be hard, tough and not overly empathetic.
  • Construction companies do a poor job of training their workers.
  • Construction doesn’t represent a believable “work & life” balance opportunity.
  • Construction workers can be laid off.
  • The work is dirty and more difficult than many other professions.
  • Wages and benefits might not always be there: “You work, you get paid; you don’t work, you don’t get paid!”

Several of the items listed are actually not totally true for all contractors, but they still represent a perception that is held by many people. In some cases, older adults, even parents of the millennial-aged adult, might have passed on some of these perceptions of our construction industry.

But there is one more bit of information — a real tragedy — that is potentially more devastating to our industry: many experienced and well-paid “craftsman” in construction will not recommend construction as a career to their own children. Wow! That’s really shocking when you think about it because construction has provided many people with great careers.

But let’s get back to this trust issue. Finding and hiring good people is very important, but keeping good people requires the building of trust between the employee and contractor. How is a contractor to accomplish this? Let me introduce a new process that I developed recently called the SWOT Method.

Most leaders will recognize “SWOT” to represent the “Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat” analysis that is often completed during a strategic planning process. I want to adapt the same acronym to assist our approach to winning the trust of workers so we can retain them longer. Hopefully this method will be easier for you to remember and act on immediately.

Taking a SWOT at employee trust includes:

Spending time with employees

You cannot expect to build any trust with employees if you don’t spend time with them. No different than building trust with your children, you have to provide time to allow both sides of the relationship to get to know each other, to build some expectations about each other, and to just let the people “chemistry” get formulated.

Consider a few ways to spend time with your workers:

  • Meet with your workers at the beginning of each work day and discuss that day’s schedule, goals, etc.
  • Make periodic visits to work areas to monitor how employees are working and ask them about challenges, needs, etc.
  • Take a few minutes throughout the day/week to ask employees about their understanding, if they have questions, etc.
  • Await their return to the yard, shop or office at the end of the work day to confirm how the day progressed
  • Surprise your workers by bringing lunch, snacks or drinks to the jobsite
  • Hold a once a month/quarter “game night” where you rent a local gaming center and provide all drinks, snack food, etc. “on the company” while you mingle among your employees and enjoy some friendly and innocent competition at pool, bowling, etc.
  • Ask employees how their family is getting along and listen to the workers brag about their kids or the vacation trip they just returned from

The reason you spend time with your employees isn’t as important as time spending the time. Such an effort breeds greater confidence in workers for their leaders and begins to instill a more trusting relationship between contractor and employee.

Working with your employees

Depending on the size of your organization this might not be easy, but it’s important for most workers to see their leaders working. Even for the contractor who has grown to a size where their actual hands-on production is limited (or non-existent) there is still something special for any employee when the owner or senior leader puts on his jeans and hardhat, grabs a tool and works alongside them.

Working alongside your workers, especially your new employees, is actually a great experience for the contractor. That’s because one thing a contractor misses as he grows is the job of actually completing the work. There is something very rewarding to the psyche, no matter the job title, to seeing work completed. This is one of the main joys of our industry — seeing the result of a long day of pouring and finishing concrete, or building a retaining wall or finishing up the “rock” of the second floor of a house.

Contractors who work with their employees should:

  • Spend one to eight hours a month pitching-in on a project
  • Keep a pair of boots, a hardhat, safety glasses and a pair of work pants in their vehicle and office for those spontaneous opportunities to work with your people
  • Volunteer to work alongside a new worker during that first week on the job
  • Join your workers at the beginning of a project or at its conclusion
  • Join a group of your workers who are “burning the candle” on a difficult project; join with them if they are putting in some really late hours at night trying to finish up a project
  • Take part in leading some of the training for new workers so you get to see up close just what you’ve hired

For the smaller contractor who sells the work and runs the crew to complete the work, the above list isn’t needed. However, as a contractor grows it’s very common to have to spend more time in business development, strategic planning and execution, and developing financial relationships with banks and developers. Still, as a contractor or senior construction leader, “strap it on” and get out to do some physical work once in a while. It’s good for your body and mind!

Opening up to questions — even encourage questions

What can you depend on from new employees during their first few days on the job? That they will ask few questions! Why? Well, some new workers simply want to listen and observe to get a feel for what your company does. Other new employees might be too timid to ask a question, thinking you might uncover just how ignorant they really are about your company, industry or even how to properly use tools. 

If you’re going to build trust with your workers they must believe it’s ok to ask questions — and that you believe that there really are no stupid questions. So, how can you demonstrate your openness to questions from your employees? Try to:

  • Model the asking of questions by asking some workers about things regarding their project or task that you might not fully understand
  • Ask your workers a question directly and wait for their response
  • Encourage all of your employees to ask questions
  • Start a “Question of the Week” program where you entertain one question, submitted by the employees about anything they want to know, and then answer it
  • During staff meetings, Monday Morning Meetings or project meetings build in some time for “Q&A”
  • Inform your workers to bring their questions when you are going to meet with them or when you invite them to a company-wide meeting
  • Seek out those employees who might naturally be quiet or shy; often these folks will not raise a question in a group setting but will feel more comfortable in a one-on-one situation

Again, there’s little mystery here regarding the importance of being open to questions from your workers. However, more contractors and senior construction leaders need to push the “open door” process because this often builds more trusting relationships with employees.

Teaching your workers consistently and consistency

This final letter has a two-purpose meaning — and both are extremely important for contractors. Believe me when I share with you that our industry as a whole is hurting from the lack of workers. This includes every position from front line laborers to the more senior field positions such as project managers, superintendents, field engineers and foremen.

To combat such shortages of potential workers contractors must recommit to and redeploy training like they’ve never done before. Herein lies part of our problem. Many contractors never have created and executed any formal training for workers. Contractors just sort of hired workers and threw them into action, trusting that some of the veterans would teach the “newbie” what was needed to be successful. While this does happen, relying only on that form of training is far from what is needed to overcome the worker shortage we are facing.

Teaching your workers consistently means just that: train consistently. Consider the following tactics:

  • Create a training “curriculum” ASAP
  • Use your experienced “experts” to train new workers
  • Include a regular follow-up effort by you, a construction leader or those who did the original training
  • Require all employees to receive some 15 to 20 hours of formal training per year (for larger contractors the hours should be 40 to 60 hours)
  • Take your turn to conduct actual training (in your area of expertise) so you can experience what is really needed and how best to train workers
  • Contract with training companies or consultants who can extend and accelerate your training focus

Teaching your workers to be consistent is critical to your production, quality and profits. Consider training on the following efforts:

  • Train workers and leaders to thoroughly “pre-con” a project before starting the work
  • Educate workers on specific expectations that must be met
  • When mistakes are made, don’t get mad, get educational; walk those involved through the correct thinking; in doing so they can achieve the right results the next time around
  • Discuss each morning what is expected from the day’s efforts
  • Discuss at the end of each day what was accomplished compared to what was discussed during the morning meeting
  • Communicate with all of your employees the need for and expectation of consistent performance
  • Spell out what all employees are to be consistent with, such as:
    • How to prepare safely and work safely on every project, when working around the office and yard, etc.
    • Handling tools, equipment and vehicles appropriately and safely
    • How to interact professionally with customers
    • Following work processes each and every time
    • Holding one another accountable to doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time…every time

Training consistently and training to be consistent are huge factors to building worker trust. Most workers simply want to know what is expected of them. They are more confident working for the contractor who is going to train them to be successful. 

Also, employees are more secure emotionally when they are working for a contractor who is preaching, teaching and living consistency. No one wants to work for an owner or leader who behaves one way today and another way tomorrow. Such inconsistent behavior will run off many promising workers who want to work for an organization that they can depend on and trust.

As you take a SWOT at building trust with your workers, both new hires and veterans, remember that building, establishing and maintaining trust begins with the folks at the top — the contractor and his or her senior team of leaders.

Take a SWOT at building trust with your workers, just be sure to hit all the right things to do that we laid out here.