Expanding DE&I Efforts to Include Independent Contractors

Embarking on a DE&I journey requires taking the first step, and doing so with a clear vision and strategic intent offers significant benefits to enterprises.

Organizations across various industries have made significant efforts to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, recognizing their importance in attracting and retaining top-performing talent and appealing to consumers. However, many organizations fail to realize that their DE&I efforts can and should extend beyond their internal workforce. The independent workforce is 64.6 million strong and is a rich source of talent for organizations. As such, broadening equity and inclusion efforts is essential to encompass diverse small businesses, including independent contractors.

In the United States, job openings consistently outnumber the unemployed, creating a widening labor gap, particularly among highly skilled individuals. Consequently, enterprises increasingly rely on —and, in today’s uncertain economy, even prefer— independent contractors to fulfill crucial business roles to execute against critical business initiatives while retaining cost flexibility and corporate agility. In my company, MBO Partners’ 2022 Contingent Labor Report, 82% of organizations surveyed report that skilled contingent workers make up half or more of their contingent labor force. While corporate DEI programs often focus on the ethnographic and demographic nature of “diversity,” they neglect to truly become inclusive, focusing on equity and inclusion as equally essential pillars of program development.

Today, to attract and retain the best talent, organizations must rethink how to attract and retain top talent across the entire work ecosystem. Failure to extend the lens of DE&I across the workforce can result in missed opportunities for equity and inclusion and improvements to products and services resulting from diversity in your talent pool. As a female leader in predominantly male-dominated industries – I spent more than 25 years in finance before joining MBO Partners early in 2023—I see this and have trained my organizations for this exact issue often, working to carve out leadership roles for women, channel a passion for gender equity, and to champion diversity, not just across genders but also across backgrounds, worker types, and life stages. One commonality I’ve observed at organizations like Credit Suisse, Citibank, and BNY Mellon is that workers of all types have the same desire for inclusion, no matter their status in the payroll system.

Organizations can adopt a three-pronged framework to effectively address this issue, evaluate their current practices, identify opportunities for change, and, once identified, train for their ongoing adoption and success. With each step, we’ve incorporated suggestions for a full-time workforce and an extended work landscape, including targeted activations and training that could be adopted to ensure program success.

See: Foundation & Data

The first step toward effecting change is measurement. Organizations must evaluate what they currently offer contingent workers to develop a strategy and measure the diversity within their independent contractor population. This effort includes implementing surveys to gauge worker satisfaction and capturing data on the diversity of their existing supplier base. It is by this idea that I first came up with the concept of GBTA by WINiT (www.GBTA.org), the award-winning non-profit I founded for the visibility and promotion of women in the hospitality industry, as I observed firsthand the overabundance of women in the organization, but the dwindling numbers of women in leadership roles. By setting goals and benchmarking progress regularly, organizations can lay the foundation for growth. A next-step effort for training programs could include a communications initiative to educate team members about baselines and the next steps for development.

Program Support

Creating a foundational program begins with educational events, engagement, and support to develop and enable more diverse independent business owners and help them overcome obstacles to their success. Organizations can engage in community building, outreach initiatives, and regular cohort engagement and aim for extended workforce programs to reach parity with FTE programs.

For example, organizations can leverage their direct sourcing programs to allow small, diverse-owned businesses, even those with only one person, to view and respond to open projects. This deliberate act of inclusion sends a powerful message that the company is willing to invest in traditionally overlooked businesses. It also enables organizations to tap into a wealth of talent and creativity that can contribute to their growth. Enterprises should aim to develop programs that attract and curate diverse independent talent, like their efforts for full-time employees. This may involve branding initiatives, declared benchmarks for talent diversity percentages, or marketing campaigns targeted at underserved populations.

Scale for Sustainable Growth

While growth is essential to success, organizations should strive for more. The tools and strategies for scaling a program will vary depending on the enterprise but may include community nurturing programs, dedicated outreach, and initiatives to build specific diverse supplier populations. Aligning programs to corporate values and beliefs can be particularly powerful. This could involve setting annual goals to increase the number of suppliers from distinct backgrounds by a certain percentage, allocating specific funding for diverse groups, or providing educational grants for independent contractor re-skilling. The possibilities are vast, and organizations can seek guidance from dedicated program partners to drive impact strategically while maintaining compliance.

Embarking on a DE&I journey requires taking the first step, and doing so with a clear vision and strategic intent offers significant benefits to enterprises. By extending DE&I efforts to include independent professionals and micro-businesses, organizations can enhance their positioning as clients of choice, foster greater inclusivity, and ultimately make a substantial impact through their DE&I strategies. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize the independent contractor population when striving to create lasting change.

Mick Lee
Mick Lee is the chief administration officer at MBO Partners, a work platform that connects and enables independent professionals and microbusiness owners to do business safely and effectively with enterprise organizations.