Recently, I was surprised to hear two younger contractors express the opinion that hazing is an old school problem and rarely occurs today. I am not suggesting that it does or does not occur in their shops but I did ask how they knew for sure? Both replied that it was not part of their business environment. I know a young union carpenter who recently completed his apprenticeship. I am certain his employer believed his environment would not allow hazing either. Almost as soon as this young man was hired, he wanted to quit. I assured him this hazing was only a phase and would pass.
How many good, young people has our industry chased away? We will never know because hazing is not reported—the solution is to quit. I had lunch with a subcontractor who had a young man quit that morning. He noted this person had real potential—he just up and quit after a week. The reason given was this kind of work was just not for him. I wondered if he had possibly been hazed. My friend felt that was not possible as all the crew liked him. But does that mean anything? We know victims rarely say, “I am being bullied.” Who would do that when you can just quit? Sadly, reporting it would likely just make things worse. I grew up in the trade with apprentices and witnessed hazing. I was fortunate, my last name was on the building, so hazing me would likely get you fired. I was protected.
What is Hazing?
Hazing is imposing strenuous and possibly humiliating tasks for a sole purpose. My young carpenter friend was told to take several sheets of drywall to the top floor of a high-rise but was forbidden to use an elevator. After lunch, he was directed to take those same sheets back down to the lobby. The point was clear: endure or quit. As a contractor, you are unaware of this stupidity. Your crews may be sabotaging you and they will certainly deny it. The main question is why do this? I believe there are four reasons your crew conspire to haze a new recruit.
HISTORIC: Most journeymen were hazed when they started. It is simply now their turn to carry out the tradition. While it makes no sense, most feel it is a time-honored manly tradition, similar to the Pamplona Bull Run in Spain. Yet, others who know it is wrong tend to stay quiet for fear of retribution. After all, we all went through it; it’s their turn now. It is just a traditional part of the construction history and we wonder why we are not attracting the best.
TOUGHNESS: Some will justify actions by stating they need to see if the new cub has what it takes to make it. They explain, “We do not have time to waste training a snowflake.” This reason justifies the first and makes perfect sense to them. Now they have a good reason to push the limits. After all, the basic training in the military is not much different. Break them down and then re-build them; sounds all so logical.
NEPOTISM: Skilled construction jobs tend to pay well. Many foremen have family ties or some close friends with young families; these young people will need jobs, too. Even if it is subconscious, many foremen seem to push the new “unrelated” recruit(s) into quitting. This can make room for someone who is already part of the family. This might also explain why our industry has so many connected relationships.
SELF-PRESERVATION: We all have a sense of self-preservation. We naturally stave off threats to our income and future. A good foreman who has been told to fit a bright, young, hard worker into the crew can be perceived as a threat. If they see a talented, intelligent person who has the boss’s eye, how could they not see this person as a potential threat? Experienced foremen have been through slow-downs and mass lay-offs. Mediocrity is desired—not a brilliant star, particularly one who already has the boss’s eye. This person is a future threat; getting them to quit is a solution and removes suspicion to yourself. This happens all the time and is not limited to the construction field.
Establishing a policy that forbids hazing is imperative. If we want to attract and keep talented young people, we must figure this out and address the real problem. I wish I had the answers as to how it should be fixed. Maybe just acknowledging that we have a problem that needs real solutions is a first step.