The heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, were not what you'd expect typical Hollywood stars to be. The female lead, Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, was strong and smart, but at no point did she wear a skin tight dress or have her chest do the talking for her. The male lead, Finn, played by John Boyega, was well-muscled and smart, as one would expect, but he is also black--a characteristic that stands out in a world of white male leads.
Another J.J. Abrams success also consisted of a rather diverse cast. The cult hit Lost, contained, as QZ describes, "the types of faces you'd expect to see on an actual transpacific flight." Since the story is all about a plane that crashes on a mysterious island in the midst of a transpacific flight, that actually makes sense.
Imagine that, hiring people who look like real humans. (And we won't get into the fact that all the main players in Star Wars are humans. Let's see a member of Jabba the Hut's family join the rebellion and battle somehow.)
This casting didn't just happen accidentally. J.J. Abrams seeks out people who look like America. Last week, Abrams informed studies that his production company, Bad Robot, would only consider lists of actors, directors, and everyone else who works in a production company, if those applicants looked like America: "Which roughly breaks down to: 50 percent women, 12 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian."
Abrams actively seeks to make his workforce look like the country. In an interview with Charles Duhigg at the New York Times, Abrams pointed out that the problem with no black nominees at this year's Oscars wasn't due to a one-time vote. "The Oscar issue was symptomatic of a problem; it wasn't the problem. The Oscars is the last stop on the train. The first stop is what gets made."
This is true in every business. We complain that there aren't enough people from this group or that group represented in the CEO suite, but the reality is if your entry-level employees don't look like the available talent, your CEOs never will either. While a Hollywood star can achieve fame and fortune before they can legally drink, in behind the scenes roles and in business in generally, it take years of hard work to get to the top.
Wanting your workforce to look like America can result in some illegal activity, so be careful. You don't want to implement quotas, ever. Additionally, you always want to hire the best person for the job, even if that person happens to be the same race and gender as the last two people you hired.
For businesses that are subject to the Affirmative Action Reporting, they already have to report their employees based on race and gender and compared with the local population of people with those skills. If you're hiring kindergarten teachers, you're going to have a hard time reaching 50 percent males because there just aren't that many men with early childhood education degrees. The solution there isn't to hire unqualified males so that your school "looks like America" but to encourage men to major in early childhood education in college.
Abrams stated goal is not to have a hiring quota, but to ensure that "the pool of talent we choose from is as rich and representative as possible." How can you do this?
Consider who you recruit.
Do your entry-level employees come from the same three universities every year? When you hire senior level employees, do you only consider people who have had a certain set of experiences? What about where and how you advertise? If you want to get a diverse candidate slate, stop looking in the same place each time.
Consider how you retain.
You want more women in senior roles? Give more support for childbirth and daycare. Yes, all children have two biological parents, but women are more motivated by flexibility than money, especially when their children are young. If you don't offer flexibility to the 27-year-old mom, she's not likely to become your 45-year-old CFO down the line.
People from different backgrounds have different cultures. People who look identical can come from very different cultural backgrounds and want very different things in a company. Ask your employees from time to time what perks and benefits they want. Happy low-level employees grow into happy senior employees.
Consider your customer.
If you're just targeting guys in their 30s, you probably want to be heavy on the guys in their 30s on staff. Women's magazines tend to have a lot of women on staff. But if your product has wider appeal, get people from wider backgrounds to work for you. If you want to sell to the midwest, stop hiring only people who went to coastal universities. If you want to appeal to Hispanics, you'll need to have Hispanics on your team.
Don't take this to mean that we can only appeal to people who look and sound like we do. That's false. But, you'll have a better chance of understanding your customer if you have a staff that come from a wide variety of backgrounds.