Diversity is garnering attention of people worldwide, with the events this year focusing a spotlight on the importance of not just diversity but inclusion and belonging — and justice — more than any time in recent memory.

In addition, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is hitting minority communities particularly hard — both the virus itself and the economic destruction in the wake of stay-at-home orders aimed at preventing its spread.

The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the forefront concerns over diversity, inclusion and belonging policies.

Businesses Respond

Several large companies issued responses in the wake of the protests.

“@Uber stands in solidarity with the Black community and with peaceful protests against the injustice and racism that have plagued our nation for too long,” Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshai wrote in a tweet in early June.

Businesses, including staffing client companies, have been concerned about diversity even before the events of this year. In a 2019 survey by Staffing Industry Analysts, 60% of large companies that use staffing firms said they had a program for diversity suppliers in place, and 29% said they planned to explore putting one in place over the next two years.

SIA has compiled its list of diversity-owned staffing firms for several years as one small effort to highlight these firms. There are 147 firms on this year’s list, and they include minority- and women-owned staffing firms working with a range of industries. We spoke with a number of them and other workforce experts for this article on what diversity, inclusion and belonging mean to the ecosystem. The pandemic.

The impact of Covid-19 on the workforce and the staffing industry as a whole cannot be understated, and it’s been especially impactful for diversity firms. “I think history will be remembered by what we said and what we did in this time more than ever,” says Audra Jenkins, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Randstad North America.

“History will be remembered by what we said and what we did in this time more than ever.”
— Audra Jenkins, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Randstad North America

Large companies have put in place hiring freezes, hurting staffing firms’ ability to earn revenue. In addition, access to capital and liquidity has been an obstacle for smaller, diversity-owned firms, Jenkins says. Many of these firms were also excluded from Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to keep smaller businesses afloat.

“For small, diverse firms, they can’t wait to come out on the other side of this,” she says.

Meanwhile, minority communities, in general, have been disproportionately affected by the virus. In addition to a disparity in healthcare insurance, one study found that African Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than white people. Authors of the study, “Disparities in Outcomes Among Covid-19 Patients in a Large Health Care System in California,” were from the University of California San Francisco and elsewhere.

Separately, xenophobic rhetoric and behavior against those perceived to be Asian American gained notice at the start of the pandemic.

The Right Strategy

With recent events bringing diversity into the greater public consciousness, so, too, is its importance growing within the workforce solutions ecosystem. Business leaders realize pursuing diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace is not just the right thing to do, but it makes strategic sense as well for their companies given the diversity of their own customer bases.

“Diversity is more important now than ever because it allows for people with different backgrounds and different unconscious biases — which we all have — to get to know one another on a different level and, in some cases, be a little less comfortable but be more wise in the long run,” says Gene Waddy, CEO of staffing firm Diversant and CEO of payrolling firm Alpha Business Solutions.

“DIversity allows for people with different backgrounds and unconscious biases to get to know one another on a different level.”
— Gene Waddy, CEO, Diversant; CEO, Alpha Business Solutions

Bigger firms had been asking more questions and making stronger commitments to actionable diversity and inclusion strategies even before these back-to-back crises, Randstad’s Jenkins says.

And in these tense times, diversity initiatives are continuing to grow, says Waddy, whose staffing firm is on the list. Meanwhile, the concept of diversity has expanded beyond race, gender and ethnic groups to include groups such as those with different sexual orientations, those who served in the military, seniors and people with disabilities.

But it takes more than just talking about diversity to make it a reality. Companies must work actively on their sourcing strategies and that may mean adding training or looking beyond where candidates are usually sourced, Waddy says. It’s also time to build a feeder system where companies can source a variety of talent from the inner cities and other areas, giving them access to economic opportunity.

Part of Your DNA

For companies to succeed in this area, it takes determination, says Mahfuz Ahmed, CEO of staffing provider Digital Intelligence Systems (Disys).

“When you’re really making a push about diversity you really have to make a conscious effort,” Ahmed says. It’s got to be part of a company’s DNA. 

Ahmed cites his experience as a board member at a Tier-1 research university. More than 40% of the student body comes from diverse backgrounds but only 16% of the faculty and staff have the same designation. The university recently recruited for a professor and found a focus on diversity called for a conscious effort, with tactics such as keeping the search open longer to ensure they found a diverse candidate pool.

He said change doesn’t happen overnight or without deliberate investment. It’s a slow process, but it’s one of great benefit to society.

Client companies are often interested in hiring diverse candidates and ask whether going with a diversity-owned staffing firm will find them diverse candidates, However, the question misses the point. Companies need to make diversity part of their corporate values, not simply check boxes.

And often diversity-owned staffing firms don’t lead with their diversity status out front. Potential candidates won’t necessarily know a particular staffing firm is minority owned. However, once a candidate does engage with a minority-owned firm — and sees that people of color are represented on its senior leadership team — that’s when the game changes.

Once a candidate engages with a minority-owned firm — and sees that people of color are represented on its senior leadership team — that’s when the game changes.

The type of engagement and the discussion transform, says Pegui Mariduena, chief operating officer at The Royster Group, who also formerly served as director of diversity at The Coca-Cola Co.

“It does create stronger relationships,” Mariduena says. And candidates can see from a website how diverse a company’s leadership is.

Staffing firms with a strong focus on diversity also have another advantage in that they’re plugged in and know where to find the larger pools of diverse candidates, she says. They also have the ability to network and gain the trust of the candidates. “It does enable us to engage in those areas differently.”

Ken Taunton, president and CEO of The Royster Group, says diversity has always been top-of-mind at his firm. Taunton started the company after being part of a publicly traded executive search firm, where he rarely saw people of color or women included in searches for high-level positions with high compensation.

But The Royster Group focuses on delivering to clients a diverse slate of candidates.

“Our goal is to make sure that any positions we recruit for, that slate will be diverse. That’s one of our pillars, one of our core values,” Taunton says.

Today, Atlanta-based The Royster Group provides both executive search and contingent staffing in healthcare and other segments, including physician search. It also does a lot of work with the federal government; its placements are often longer term. It is on SIA’s list of Diversity-Owned US Staffing Firms as well.

In addition to leading The Royster Group, Taunton is a board member of the Georgia Minority Supplier Development Council as well as the American Staffing Association.

Relationship Business

The staffing industry has often been described as a “relationship business” and diversity can make a big impact on those relationships.

“People tend to gravitate towards other people whom they feel that they can relate to socially,” says Chris Drewy, founder and CEO of Bravo- Drewy Enterprises dba B Select Services, based in Austin, Texas. B Select Services is on the Diversity-Owned US Staffing Firms list as well.

Drewy says his firm places people of all ethnicities, although many of the candidates in its applicant pool are minorities. Founded in October 2016, the company provides staffing in industrial and office clerical. It operates in Dallas and San Antonio as well as Austin.

“Diversity is what makes our country the greatest nation on the planet,” Drewy says. “People from all walks of life, nationalities and heritages all having the same opportunities to build a successful business is what drives the American economy.”

Accelerating Change

While diversity is at top of mind, this time in history may prove a good opportunity to accelerate change in some areas.

MSP and RPO provider Pontoon Solutions notes all its clients incorporate diversity into their hiring strategies and the ability to access diverse partners is imperative. However, many companies are adopting remote onboarding technology and “recruiterless” hiring during the pandemic, says Nadia Schlatter, global head of transformation and delivery at Pontoon.

“This is the prime opportunity, in the absence of face-to-face interviewing, to also accelerate processes designed to remove conscious and unconscious bias within hiring,” Schlatter says. “We have been working with our partners on how to make this a reality in the immediate future.”

Different Challenges

Still, managers are also facing a different set of challenges amid Covid-19. Managing people remotely involves a different skill set than for managing on site.

Andrew Rawson, co-founder and chief learning officer of Traliant, says that might add stress on managers to revert to hiring people just because they went to the same school or they were recommended by someone they know. It’s something managers must work on overcoming.

Traliant provides online compliance training, including preventing sexual harassment and covering diversity and inclusion. It was established around the time of the #MeToo movement, which brought about greater awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and demand for more effective training to address and prevent it. And Rawson thinks the current movement could also result in major change.

Companies are realizing they need to do more than just check the box, Rawson says. “We have a responsibility to contribute to a more equitable society, and our piece of that is to help create and maintain more equitable organizations.”

“We have a responsibility to contribute to a more equitable society, and our piece of that is to help create and maintain more equitable organizations.”
— Andrew Rawson, co-founder and Chief Learning Officer, Traliant,

At the same time, it’s not enough to just look at the numbers and hire diverse talent, he says.

You can’t dictate inclusion; it’s driven by culture. Bringing in minority personnel is not enough in and of itself; it’s a matter of welcoming them to the company and making sure they feel part of everything.

Turning Point?

Others are also hopeful this will be a turning point in the US, bringing about needed change and forging a path forward.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm; it’s so many things that are shaking us as a country,” Diversant’s Waddy says. “It’s moving this country in a way that it hasn’t been in a while, but it is providing an opportunity for us to change things for the better.”