After the year 2020 saw the dawn of one of the most significant social justice movements, the state of diversity, equity and inclusion has undergone many twists and turns. Some companies across the globe are discussing the way forward for better inclusivity while setting goals to prioritize DE&I. Many have yet to begin their DE&I journeys. Still others are mired in DE&I technicalities.

On the plus side, we saw many companies beginning to hire chief diversity officers and specialists who began to implement employee resource groups and reimagine training programs to educate their workforce on unconscious biases, for example. The staffing industry, for its part, vowed to help move the needle forward on DE&I, both within its own ranks and by helping its clients achieve their goals.

Now, however, while the pandemic and its global economic effects continue to echo into 2022, the world is reeling from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact globally, which is leading to concerns about the future of these DE&I initiatives. Has interest in DE&I fallen by the wayside? What is hindering progress in the journey? We take a look at the pain points that the different groups in the workforce solutions ecosystem are dealing with.

A Work in Progress

Allen Chilson, talent acquisition leader, vendor management, at Danaher Corp., says that at the corporate level, most companies were already stepping up their DE&I efforts prior to the pandemic, but the spotlight on the topics of racism and racial injustice made it clear the efforts that were underway were insufficient.

“I would say that many companies … learned that all of their previous efforts were not enough to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into their workplace,” Chilson says. “I would call [the attitude toward DE&I] a work in progress for most in the industry, something where everyone knows we aren’t done yet and have to continue working to move the needle in the right direction.”

One major staffing firm that has been on this journey since before 2020 is Randstad, the world’s largest staffing firm. The company appointed Audra Jenkins as its first — and the industry’s first — chief diversity and inclusion officer in 2017 and has since continued its efforts in DE&I by appointing women to its board and establishing an executive diversity council.

Jenkins agrees that the industry’s attitude toward DE&I continues to be one of progress.

“In today’s competitive market, top employers understand that impactful equity, diversity and inclusion efforts fuel innovation and drive better business outcomes,” Jenkins says. “Where the industry has lagged in the past, the client demand, changing societal views and the shifting power dynamics of the candidate and the employer are driving a more intentional focus on DE&I.”

At the same time, not every firm knows how to start or move forward wisely.

“Companies are interested in discussing DE&I for contingent labor and want to take steps toward it but don’t know where to start, who does the work or what the rules are,” Wen Stenger, CEO and co-founder of Omni Inclusive, says. “It can be overwhelming if you don’t break down the strategy into actionable tasks.”

Bumps in the Road

Firms that are in the middle of their DE&I journeys as well as companies that have yet to embark on one face a long and arduous challenge, particularly amid the ongoing pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine.

According to Jenkins, one of the main pain points most organizations encounter is the Great Resignation. Jenkins says DE&I efforts “can be derailed where there is rapid turnover.”

She also highlighted the frozen middle as a potential pain point. “DE&I is clearly articulated and understood with alignment among most senior ranks in the organization — CEO to the next two levels,” Jenkins says. “It can lose translation, focus and positioning with middle management, which can cause a bottleneck on actionable plans.”

Chilson agrees that diversity goals do get lost lower on the corporate ladder.

“The leaders who commit to them relay them to their leadership teams with an expectation that the same communication happens at each rung of the ladder — but it is inevitable that this communication breaks down at some point,” he says.

Keeping open lines of communication and prioritizing DE&I down the ladder is crucial to avoid the loss of focus on goals.

To address this challenge within his previous employer, Chilson provided his recruitment process outsourcing team with a memo to share with hiring managers at their kick-off/intake meetings for new requests to inform those managers that the diversity goals that the RPO recruiter would help them meet were indeed corporate goals and not something that the RPO provider was driving for its own benefit.

Chilson was able to see results with this method. “By backing up my RPO [provider] with that memo, they were able to discuss the diversity goals of our recruiting process with a manager who was more receptive to the conversation,” and understood why the conversation was happening, he adds.

Another obstacle is hiring managers’ speed of adoption.

Jenkins says, “Hiring managers want to fill roles quickly and efficiently to alleviate burnout from existing employees. It can be a challenge to ensure that they keep DE&I a primary focus in all aspects of the recruitment life cycle.”

To tackle these challenges, Jenkins and Randstad utilize its Executive Diversity Council as well as its business resource group and ambassadors/ champions. Randstad has seven different business resource groups that help raise awareness and offer mentoring, internal training and events to elevate the group’s culture. Ambassadors of Randstad’s equity, diversity and inclusion team, or REDI, also help keep DE&I top of mind in their respective lines of business, share updates and events, encourage feedback to help shape and evolve strategy, and participate in external diversity events Randstad hosts.

Yet another challenge faced by firms are “blanket goals,” which is when goals are set at the corporate or even the regional level to put programs in place to increase the diversity of the company’s workforce.

According to Chilson, firms would sometimes fail to consider the nonexempt portion of their workforce that may not be open to relocation for a new job, such as manufacturing, logistics and call center workers.

Chilson adds, “As a result, your talent pool is limited to those workers in a commutable distance of your physical location, and it is possible that your facility is in a non-diverse area or one where local customs/culture do not have a lot of women taking jobs in manufacturing plants.”

By using data on the available manufacturing workforce and the historical lack of opportunity for diverse communities to receive training opportunities in the industry, Chilson and his team built a business case to launch apprenticeship programs for some of their sites in 2021.

“These were ‘earn while you learn’ programs where we were sponsoring their tuition at a local community college or technical school while they were also getting hands-on work experience in the plant,” he says.

While Chilson left this employer before seeing any of the apprentices reach their graduation, he added that the program was “very positively” received by managers, the local community and the individuals who were brought on as apprentices.

Taking Ownership

Another roadblock to progress, according to Gene Waddy, CEO of Alpha Business Solutions, is that many clients try to blend supplier diversity with workforce diversity. These “are two distinct areas [that] require different infrastructure,” Waddy notes, but clients need to be educated in the value of having diversity suppliers within their program beyond satisfying spend goals.

“Alpha goes the extra mile to help our clients understand what we provide and how it benefits them, especially how we fit into the DE&I work as a diverse supplier that can also help them source other providers outside of Alpha’s expertise due to our deep roots in the MBE (minority business enterprise) community. The same goes for workforce diversity,” Waddy says.

Waddy says that Alpha Business Solutions is seeing results with this approach as the company has experienced 2,000% growth since its founding in 2018 and spin-off from his legacy IT staffing firm Diversant.

One pain point involving staffing suppliers is that more suppliers need to take ownership of DE&I for their workforce, Omni Inclusive’s Stenger says. Stenger tackles this challenge by taking ownership of DE&I strategy for all Omni Inclusive staff and contractors. Furthermore, Omni also mentors other businesses on how to implement a DE&I process for their companies. While no quantifiable results are out yet for most companies Omni has worked with — the company launched in December 2021 — some initial steps have been taken in 2022.

Stenger says organizing supplier data and delivering to the buyer in anonymized and data-protected methods is an issue. Furthermore, firms should go beyond supplier spend and diversity employee resource groups and buyers should understand their role when it comes to DE&I, they say.

“Data is the important starting point to understand your gaps, not to determine how diverse you already are, because you aren’t,” Stenger adds.

“It’s important to understand exactly what EEOC reporting (EEO-1) requires, which is race/ethnicity and sex (not gender) of all employees by job category for private employers with over 100 employees and federal contractors with 50 or more employees.

“This is not like implementing a direct sourcing model or an MSP. We’re talking about hundreds of years of systemic discrimination. The change in biased business practices is a slow process,” Stenger adds.

The Dialogue Continues

DE&I dialogue within the contingent workforce solutions ecosystem does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

“The industry will continue to progress and gain new ground,” Jenkins says. “I am hopeful that the staffing industry will be a case study other industries use on how to successfully embed DE&I in all aspects of our business operations from the candidate experience to onboarding and employee reskilling and development.”

Linda Perneau, president and CEO of Volt Information Sciences, says she feels the industry is “permanently committed to DE&I,” adding that her firm is seeing “clear dedication” to the issue “from our clients, big and small, as well as from every corner of our organization, top to bottom.” Stenger says, “Our vision for the future of DE&I is that it becomes commonplace in the contingent workforce. With nearly half the work population in the contractor or gig space, we can’t keep talking about inclusion while excluding half our workers.”

According to Stenger, having a strong “why” is a good place for companies to start their journey. “Understand what your company wants to accomplish by bringing DE&I into your workforce. If it’s merely to check a box, please rethink that, and don’t do this work until you really mean it,” they say.

Despite the continued focus on DE&I, there is some concern that external events, such as the current war in Ukraine, could cause a regression in attention.

“It is hard to say [what the future holds],” Waddy says. “I am afraid that the impending economic headwinds predicted for the US could cause DE&I initiatives to be greatly reduced … these programs are often the first to be cut when times get hard financially. But in general, DE&I is here to stay because the consumer market demands it, and the demographics of this country continue to change as well.”

Chilson says that with the continued growth in the contingent workforce, the diversity in workers will become more valued.

“I think the future for DE&I in the contingent workforce space will continue to see companies appreciating the diversity of their contingent workers, for the diversity of thought, background, personality, etc. that comes with it,” Chilson adds. “As more workers choose to work in a contingent fashion, companies should definitely invest more resources in diversifying the contingent workforce.”