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“Class bias is beneath everything,” says Christopher “CJ” Gross, founder and chief executive officer of Ascension Worldwide. “It’s the foundation and tone for how we approach all of the things that we do.”

Gross has made inclusion, diversity and equity (IDE) his business, literally. Ascension Worldwide is a global consulting firm that provides IDE and unconscious bias training, as well as strategic planning, talent management and leadership development, for industries such as manufacturing, construction management, engineering and finance. A certified social and emotional intelligence coach, Kiersey Temperament professional, Intercultural Development Inventory administrator and Six Sigma black belt, Gross has just released “What’s Your ZIP Code Story?: Understanding and Overcoming Class Bias in the Workplace.”

The book offers solutions to class bias by analyzing hypothetical scenarios and real-world experiences. In an exclusive interview, Construction Executive talks to Gross about why this matters for every type of business—including those in construction.

What is class bias?

Classification happens when we are considering all the different components of a person’s background: their education level, the way they dress, the activities they’re in, what titles they have held, what company they’ve worked for, whether they are married, do they play golf or travel? 

For example, I interviewed several male CEOs who all said they would be more likely to trust a man and put him in leadership. One reason was that, if he is young and married, he knows how to make a commitment. Approximately 80% of the time that we’ve had qualitative interviews with women who are in leadership, they have said they have had to either hide the fact that they wanted to have a kid or not tell their company they were pregnant.

We think a person would make a great leader because of those “experiences.” It’s a hidden rule that says you are qualified. It’s been that way since the beginning of time, because the brain sees people who are similar to you as saying “same” means “safe.” However, if you were to coach someone who does not already have those tools and experiences, that person can then mitigate class bias over time because they can have the similar experiences to compete.

What can construction companies do to combat class bias? 

There are three “Cs”: 

The first C, which is the most important, is culture. To cultivate a culture of mentorship within your organization.

The second component is character. Developing character and cultural acumen in leaders.

The third part is credentials, credentials, credentials. I’m not talking about formal credentials. I’m talking about the credentials that are intangible, like travel. 

Those are a good way to level the playing field, and organizations need to operationalize that in their leadership programs specifically for minorities or marginalized groups. 

Why should business leaders care about class bias and IDE training?

First thing I would say is, don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do. I mean, that’s good, but it is first and foremost a business case. One client in construction management, for example, lost a contract worth $100 million because they did not have a diverse pitch team. 

Yes, it is the right thing to do. But how many people do the right thing to do? You are in business to make money. If you want to continue to make money, you need to continue to grow. You want to leave a legacy. You need to think about what’s going to do that. There’s tons of research that supports the business case for IDE. 

What are some of the biggest problems companies typically bring you?

The biggest gap people need to fill is leadership. Company culture is driven by leadership. And company culture drives organizational objectives. So, if you have leaders who are not true leaders, you’re going to have gaps.

The second thing is attracting diverse talent in leadership. 

How do you acquire more diverse talent, particularly now with the talent shortage?

I look at this as if I was fishing. If I’m trying to get a fish that’s not the norm, such as a marlin, I have to go to a certain place and use a certain rod. I need to be there at a certain time of the day, and I need to know how to pull it in. I need to get specialists and get one of those big boats.

What companies are challenged with is doing the same thing, trying to get different results. There’s not a plethora of diversity coming out of [industry] schools, so rather than going to the same schools, expand and recruit from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. You can still cherry-pick. You can still be very particular, but HBCUs will most likely have candidates of color. They have associations for women and for Latinx employees. You name it, they have an association.

What do you hope to achieve with your book?

For people to focus on these areas of class, as leaders in the organization and as individual contributors. 


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