August 6, 2020 – Traditionally dominated by older, white men, the commercial real estate industry has supported numerous diversity initiatives in recent decades. To date, however, those have generated only moderate success. To support greater diversity within CRE, professionals will need to engage in honest conversations and commit to specific, long-term efforts, according to Thomas Bisacquino, President and CEO of NAIOP, the national organization for NAIOP Maryland.

“When you think about the roots of our industry, it was very insular… It was a lot of family-run businesses,” Bisacquino said. Within that environment, companies often made hiring decisions and business deals influenced by a “who knew who” mindset.

Diversity efforts within CRE began in the 1980s and became a significant industry focus in the 1990s as more publicly traded REITs formed and those companies had to meet requirements of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years, I think we have done a fairly good job at bringing much younger folks and more women into the industry,” Bisacquino said. “The challenge has always been with racial diversity.”

NAIOP has launched or joined numerous diversity efforts in recent decades. Those include a two-week, summer CRE immersion program at several universities that enables high school students to learn about CRE career opportunities from professionals and academics. There is NAIOP/Prologis scholarship program that gives young female and minority workers in real estate advanced CRE education and professional development opportunities. There is the coalition of NAIOP and 29 other real estate industry organizations that created the Careers Building Communities website which highlights the breadth of career options within CRE. There is the NAIOP diversity scholarship for university students and the Distinguished Fellows initiative to help university professors fully understand CRE career options and connect with industry resources. And there is the CRE Diversity and Inclusion Roundtable that annually brings together human resources leaders from 30 companies to discuss initiatives to attract a more diverse pipeline of talented people to the industry.

Thomas Bisacquino, NAIOP President and CEO

“From our industry, I think there has been a tremendous amount of effort from a lot of people,” Bisacquino said. “I would say the results have been marginally successful. It’s better than nothing, but certainly not as good as it could have been…. It is still an industry that needs to go a long way… There is a lot of commitment, but to move the needle is a really big challenge.”

One aspect of that challenge is talent retention. Onboarding any new employee, helping them break through existing cliques and find their footing within a work team is usually difficult. When a newly hired employee is the only person or nearly the only person in their demographic in that company “that person can feel very lonely and very much like the odd person out very quickly,” Bisacquino said.

Industry experience has shown that companies need to do several things to retain diverse talent, namely provide robust onboarding and ongoing support to those new hires and also “train existing employees to walk in that person’s shoes,” he said. To retain talent and become more diverse, companies also need to question whether they have a glass ceiling and examine the paths to landing positions within their C-suites.

To CRE professionals who want to support greater diversity within the industry, Bisacquino offers some advice. Companies need to honestly assess their recruiting and retention practices, make clear plans for diversity initiatives and commit to those efforts long term.

“One solution won’t fit every company…and change doesn’t happen quickly,” he said. “But if we have companies who start to work in this direction earnestly, I think we can make a difference.”