Red Badge Versus Blue Badge: Inclusion and the Contingent Workforce
One of the unique opportunities I’ve had over my 20-year career is working onsite at over a dozen different organizations, either leading onsite program management office teams or consulting clients on various aspects of extended workforce management. Through these experiences, I’ve had the privilege to live within corporate cultures spanning tech, finance, healthcare and industrial domains. This has given me a unique perspective on the varied and sometimes challenging ways I’ve seen various companies look at inclusion and how it relates to their extended workforce – inclusive of contingent and temporary workers, as well consultants and those under a statement of work (SOW) agreement.
And I know I’m not alone. My friends and peers across the globe have relayed similar experiences at their own organizations or have been on the receiving end of hearing a “can you believe this?” type of narrative.
In many cases, I’ve seen AGS clients take a holistic view of inclusion, where contingent workers are a critical part of their business strategy. In other situations that I’ve heard about or read in the media, some organizations have created a dual-class system, where inclusion is lauded in their full-time employment (FTE) strategy but seemingly ignored or even undone when looking at the rest of their workers.
More Needs to be Done to Promote Inclusivity
While progress has been made, vestiges of bad practices continue that, unintentional or not, create an unwelcoming environment for a key part of the workforce. Here are just a few examples I’ve either experienced, witnessed or heard about over my 20-year career:
- After giving a solicited opinion on a work-related topic, the person was given the visual once-over to see what color their badge was, knowing the value of their response was somehow being assessed based on its color and what that allegedly represented.
- Some professionals use terms for contingent workers that include exclusionary language such as “non-employees,” “non-FTE” or something similar; in other cases, contingent talent are restricted access to benign events like department meetings or company quarterly overviews, which are made public.
- When consulting on a sourcing strategy for staff augmentation, a person was asked, via code or euphemism, to focus on contingent candidates from a different demographic because the client already has “too many of [X type of workers].”
- Finally, as a consultant, I was kicked out of a meeting room where I was leading a meeting because “FTEs” needed the space for a last-minute call – even when I’d reserved the room well in advance.
These are just examples of actions, both big and small, that contribute to a non-inclusive workplace for contingent workers. If you’ve never been on the contingent side of a company’s workforce, I challenge you to ask your colleagues and partners who have if they’ve ever experienced similar situations. It’s not a great feeling. But taking the emotions out of it, these types of behaviors damage your company brand, and your ability to attract quality contingent talent and truly live up to the values of your corporate inclusion strategy.
So, What’s Driving These Behaviors?
Well, in most cases, situations like I’ve shared are a direct result of policies and practices that an organization has put in place to mitigate co-employment – the risk that can occur when a client assumes joint responsibility and control of a contingent worker employed by a supplier. The specter of co-employment risk has convinced many companies that the only way to mitigate this risk is to treat these workers as differently as possible so it can never be claimed they are eligible for employee benefits.
To be clear, it’s important to have a sound co-employment mitigation strategy. However, when thinking of how to execute the strategy, I’ve found that companies either enact old practices from past experiences or make sweeping decisions that limit how the business can interact and work with contingent workers in ways that don’t account for how these behaviors will actually show-up in day-to-day work-life. At some point, you must take a step back and ask if the behaviors are creating more problems than benefits.
Did stopping that temporary worker from taking part in a company-wide meeting about strategy mitigate risk? Or, was this a missed opportunity to have a key part of the business’ entire workforce hear the strategy, feel valued and be a better contributor to its goals? Is creating a visible division between employees and the extended workforce really protecting managers from co-employment risk, or is it creating an unintentional class system ripe for inequity?
Drive Change by Setting Inclusion Goals for All Workers
The good news is we can learn from the past, shift the mindset and embrace an inclusion strategy that truly includes everyone who contributes to an organization. If you want to avoid exposing your extended workforce to the experiences I’ve shared, consider these strategies:
- Stop recycling decades-old co-employment “best practices” and re-evaluate your mitigation strategy to focus on distinguishing extended workforce talent through value-recognition versus limiting recognition.
- Example: Instead of restricting the extended workforce from receiving recognition through existing employee programs, enroll them in the same program or create an appreciation program just for them.
- Rethink your employer brand and current terminology to give contingent talent a people-centric view that aligns with your internal inclusion strategy.
- Example: No one likes to be thought of as “other-than” or “not” something. While I am certain that most companies that landed on these terms did so with the best intentions, I often wonder if some of these decisions were made in the bubble of an organization’s legal or compliance team without a sanity check on how these terms land in regular work-life. Like all good brand creation, it’s key to take in other points of view before landing on a decision.
- Acknowledge that your extended workforce may have different demographics than your employee population and incorporate that into your overall sourcing and inclusion strategy.
- Example: If you desire a more diverse workforce, instead of asking your staffing partner to only give you “X,” ask them to create a truly diverse sourcing strategy that taps into under- and unrepresented talent pools. Ask for their advice, and if your internal recruiting team has partnerships with existing diverse talent pools, share them when possible.
- Create and foster a culture where contingent talent are seen as partners rather than second-class workers begging for conversion or “vendors” tasked only to execute your orders.
- Example: Even in 2022, many skilled contingent workers prefer to remain as contractors and consultants as a profession. That said, those who want to be converted will still remember their first impression of your company culture. And likewise, your outsourced providers and statement of work (SOW) suppliers thrive with clients that treat their delivery team as partners versus vendors and, in turn, will provide even better services to you when able to collaborate instead of order-take.
The above only scratches the surface of what should be done to create a truly inclusive workforce strategy. At the heart of it, we must remember that we are all people, not badges, and it is always a good strategy to put people first.
If you’re ready to take these learnings to the next level, check out our podcast with Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal. In this episode, he shares how workplace I&D conversations often overlook contingent workers and how addressing this missing piece can help organizations advance hiring, retention and inclusion of diverse talent.