For the last 15 years, Ashish Kaushal, CEO of HireTalent — an executive search firm and temporary staffing solutions provider — has been promoting diversity in the workplace. Finding the pace of change around diversity hiring and inclusion slow, Kaushal founded Consciously Unbiased in 2018 to help transform companies’ current cultures via training to educate and change organizational behavior. 

With the onset of Covid-19 and increased momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting the need for a more diverse workforce including leveling the playing field for Black Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) Kaushal commissioned SIA to produce a research report titled “The Future of Diversity and Inclusion in the Contingent Workforce.” Here, Kaushal speaks about reframing the way we look at diversity and how the report highlights that companies are eager to move forward on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. More important, these DE&I initiatives for contingent workforce programs are just as critical as those for traditionally hired employees if you really want to create a culture of belonging across your entire workforce. If you want diversity to be an initiative that actually makes sense, run it like a business, Kaushal recommends. He outlines some do’s and don’ts.

The lexicon around diversity is changing to accommodate both trends and learnings.

As the subject of diversity gained traction, it evolved to include inclusion. Now, equity is part of the conversation as well, leading to the use of “DE&I,” and to belonging as a central element in how we talk about leveling the playing field.

Ashish Kaushal, co-founder of Consciously Unbiased and CEO, HireTalent

Why did you start Consciously Unbiased, and what is it doing to advance belonging in the workplace?

HireTalent itself was founded on diversity of thought coming from different socioeconomic, cultural, religious, sexual orientation and gender backgrounds. Because that was in our DNA, we specialized in helping clients find diverse talent.

So, about two years ago, I was thinking about how, while HireTalent clients wanted diverse candidates, they weren’t hiring them fast enough. Senior management in these large companies were pushing the initiatives, putting pressure on HR and procurement to find diverse talent, but then the ultimate decision-maker, the hiring manager, wasn’t really buying into the process. I wondered why that was, and started thinking about society and how we’re so polarized right now, with the left and the right speaking past each other. Everyone is feeling like a victim these days. I realized that’s what we have in common. Let’s start there. We’re all victims.

So then I started thinking about the need for DE&I training, because if hiring decision-makers don’t buy into the training, then they’re not going to hire diverse candidates. It became clear that in our efforts to be inclusive, our training became generic. What affects me doesn’t affect you the same way. And so if we have generic training, then we’re not going to connect the mind and heart and we won’t make an impact.

If you did pay attention to training, a lot of it stemmed from guilt, right? That’s not going to motivate most people. You learn something that you didn’t know about yourself that doesn’t make you feel good about who you are. That doesn’t motivate many people to change. So you feel bad and then you keep doing what you’re doing when you leave, right?

I realized if we could change the way we think about diversity, the framework or the argument around it, that would help fix this. That led me to wanting to break down the word bias, because a lot of people are doing unconscious bias training in order to get rid of biases. But I don’t think we can, because we’re all human.

If you didn’t have any biases, then you couldn’t make judgments. Biases are based on our individual experiences — how we grew up, our family values, our community. It’s a matter of learning to apply your biases in the right situations. If you didn’t have biases, then even a simple thing like grabbing a cup of coffee, you wouldn’t think it’s hot, you’d just pour it and drink it, and then you’d burn yourself, right? So, you can’t really get rid of biases altogether. But we can reframe the discussion about them.

What if I teach about a bias without using guilt? Then you can add it to your toolbox of experiences and from there, you’ll just learn how to apply it without feeling bad about learning a new bias that you weren’t aware of.

That’s how Consciously Unbiased was formed.

So how does Consciously Unbiased advance belonging in the workplace?

Phase one of Consciously Unbiased is to build some excitement around diversity and make people rethink diversity and inclusion. We make it a personal passion of theirs, to make everyone an ambassador within the organization. And we are doing that through the marketing and content we’re putting out to help people think differently.

And then through the training services we now offer. We do a series of trainings that connect the mind and the heart and help people rethink diversity — because they may face inequity at some point, right? Or it can affect somebody they love. And so if you connect to those two things, then you make it a personal passion. So what we’re trying to do is change the DNA of cultures within organizations, and that takes time, but it seems like it’s working so far.

What inspired you to commission this report with SIA? Is there anything that you found surprising from it?

When we launched Consciously Unbiased at the CWS Summit two years ago, we got procurement to look at diversity differently, to think of it beyond diversity spend to actually going into diversity hiring. Diversity spend is important to equalize business owners against minority groups, to make it a level playing field. A little bit of that happened in the ’60s [with the establishment of various minority business enterprise designations]. Now, 50-plus years out, it’s time to go to the next level, to go to phase two. And so I think when we attended the CWS Summit in 2018, it clicked. But I wanted to connect the dots and make it simple. So I think procurement really took that philosophy (Consciously Unbiased) by the horns and said, “OK, this is something we have to start looking at.”

But still there was uncertainty — how do we turn this into action? How do we make it legally possible for contingent labor to be tracked at a diversity level within organizations? That’s what we needed to know. Through various conversations with SIA, we realized a commissioned report would provide that information we needed. We first started talking about it in February, just weeks before Covid-19. Then, awareness of the BLM movement took hold in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. And we thought it would be a turning-point moment to get people to listen and want to be part of the change.

What are the most important findings from the research?

As we were going through the surveys, we started to realize that this is probably going to be the catalyst to create true total talent solutions, because you’re forcing HR, procurement and DE&I to work together to build a solution. You can’t just build it in a box. And so that’s creating cross collaboration across departments. And I think over the next two years, you’re going to see this happen at a much larger scale, because we’ve talked about total talent solutions for years, but it really hasn’t been happening. And this is going to connect the dots for that.

Were there any results from the survey that surprised you or that you didn’t expect to learn?

I was surprised at how many people were already thinking about doing this. A lot of people had different ideas that came out of this we hadn’t thought of. And so there’s different approaches on how to apply diversity. And I think it was really fun to see other unique perspectives that people and companies are putting together.

Sixty-three percent of survey respondents in the report expect contingent diversity and inclusion to become a higher priority, but how do you see companies using this research to actually impact real change?

I think one part is that we put together a tear sheet for legal. The biggest pushback corporate America procurement people get is from legal saying, “We can’t do this,” or “We can’t do that.” And now we can give them some case studies and references of cases that have happened.

The second part is, based on what they learn from the report, companies can make sure they put the right processes in place, the right audits in place. Everyone in the staffing world is now going to say, “We’re an expert in diversity staffing.” But how the staffing firms ask the questions and how they get the data and how they track the data could put the buyer organization at risk.

So the buyer organization, the HR and procurement professionals, need to make sure that just because their staffing provider says they do it, that it’s done thoughtfully with some risk mitigation. And with this report, they’ll know what diversity leaders in the CW world are doing, what people are thinking about doing to help others build a business case, learn some tangible strategies to build up a program and move forward to affect change.

What are leading companies doing to make real strides in this area?

I think the ones that actually are collaborating with their suppliers, they’re collaborating with their DE&I teams, with their HR teams, they’re the ones that have made progress. And they’re actually actively putting money into this initiative, because it’s not enough just to say, “Hey, I want to do this.” Companies have to build a brand around it and push — let the population know that this is an initiative of theirs.

How does Covid-19 change the landscape when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

Actually, when I created Consciously Unbiased, one of the things we talked about in our training was that if you think about biases, ultimately, it’s a struggle between curiosity and fear of the unknown. And if you let curiosity win and expose yourself to people who are different from you, you actually realize they’re not that different.

So, if you think about Covid 19, we’re all working from home now, and so we’re all on Zoom calls and we can’t prevent our dog from showing up. Or we can’t prevent our kids from walking through. We’re all dealing with the same problems as one another, which helps out from a diversity standpoint because we’re realizing that, even if you and I look different, we have the same things going on. And so Covid-19 is breaking down some of the walls around diversity that wouldn’t normally happen, because you have to know people on a more personal level, especially when you’re working with them. Because you and I could even work together, but just have work conversations; now, I’m getting to know your life.

The second part of it is that besides breaking down barriers, your talent pool can be so much bigger now, because before managers only wanted local candidates, right? And now they’re realizing they can get their work done without focusing only on local candidates. And so now you can have a population from New York to LA if you wanted to, if you want to keep it US-based.

What are some best practices for companies that want to make progress on their DE&I initiatives?

The first one is to make sure that everyone’s on the same page to build a mission statement around what they’re trying to achieve. I always say, if you want diversity to be an initiative that actually makes sense, run it like a business. So if I started a new division within a company and I got 2% year-over-year growth, you’d fire me. If you have diversity goals, set real goals and have accountability, so you’ve got a way to measure it. Also, set your goals properly, build a plan around it, make sure you measure activity and then keep reiterating. So, then, if it’s not working, you keep going back and examining why and drill it down. If you do this, then it works.

What are the barriers to building a diversity program in the contingent labor pool?

There’s co-employment risk, which I don’t think is that big, but people still want to talk about it. While co-employment risk is out there, people are going to be worried about it, but the reality is the bigger risk is the risk of discrimination. And that risk is going to have a big impact on your stock price. And that’s way more likely to do damage to your brand than the co-employment risk does.

And failure to have risk mitigation strategies in place is a barrier. You need to have strategies on how you check the data, how you advertise positions, how you make statements on what your objectives are. Those are really critical.

Also, poor manager training is a barrier. So make sure your hiring managers are trained properly to receive that talent because you don’t want to bring in a diverse talent that managers don’t know how to work with or they’ll create other issues for you.

And your supplier pools can be barriers as well. You want to have a good supplier mix to build the pipelines. And also make sure the suppliers that you do bring in actually know what they are doing, that they have a process on how to manage this data carefully and how to attract talent carefully.

How does a DE&I initiative for the contingent workforce program differ from those for traditionally hired employees?

Honestly, it shouldn’t be very different. Consider how Covid has affected the difference between a contractor and a full-time person today. It’s actually opened doors for the contingent workforce, because all the rules companies had about contingent workers — they have to come onsite, they’ve got to use the company equipment — Covid took all that away.

If you think about it, if 50% of your workforce is contingent labor and 50% is direct hire, and your goal is to get to 30% women in your company, you will never get past 15% if you only look at your direct-hire numbers because you’re ignoring half the population. You have to look at your workforce holistically.

And then second thing is, if you’re training your hiring managers on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, they’re already set; they’re already primed to hire diverse candidates, whether it’s full-time or contract. So if you don’t look at it holistically, if I have half my team trained on something and the other half is not acknowledging it, then the effectiveness of changing your company’s DNA is going to be very limited.

Any mistakes that you see programs making very often around this?

The one biggest mistake is what fields they want to track. Sometimes they get overexcited and they want to track things that aren’t compliant. One client at one point wanted to check age. We’re not asking our recruiters to ask anyone their age. So you have to make sure that you’re checking the right fields.

Another mistake is not pushing the right buttons with your suppliers. You actually should add this to your scorecard because if you don’t measure it, then people don’t do it.

And then the third thing is, we always look at diversity at a sort of macro level. We have to start measuring at the micro level. And if you measure the micro level, you probably reduce some of your liability, but you also get diversity of thought and that’s ultimately where you get ROI on diversity. For example, maybe I have 30% women in my company, but they’re all on the marketing team, and all my engineers are Indian and all my finance people are Asian. You’ve built three countries inside of your company and there’s no cross-pollination so there’s no real diversity. And so if you start measuring the micro level, then there’s a room for every different type of person at the table.

The bottom line is that if you want your workforce to reflect the population, as well as your customer base, you have to be focused on advancing DE&I initiatives for your entire workforce and not only some. It’s not only the right thing to do; this research shows it’s also good for business. My hope is that more companies will really start to walk the talk and be part of the change.

The Future of Diversity and Inclusion in the Contingent Workforce report is available for download online. To discuss your company’s DE&I initatives, contact us at