What Shonda Rhimes can teach us about workplace diversity

shonda rhimes diversityIt’s no secret to any of my friends that I love Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM). Both shows are intricate, well-written (if sometimes cheesy), and have compelling characters.

The other thing that both shows have? Deliberate Diversity.

Scandal and HTGAWM feature Black female leads and have representation from people of all races and genders as fully developed characters with their own backstories and problems. This deliberated diversity happens because Shonda, from day one, sought to create shows that told everyone’s stories – and the world let her know we loved it. So what lessons can the working world take from Shonda’s deliberate diversity?

Deliberate diversity is not discrimination

Every character has a real part to play. They all have stories, lives, and intricacies. They face their own ignorance on multiple occasions. Cyrus Beene, for those of you keeping up with Scandal, got caught with a male prostitute and ended up marrying him (by the way, Cyrus is the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States). On HTGAWM, Asher Millstone is a wealthy frat star who ends up dating his female boss, but his backstory is one of privilege gone awry when the audience learns he had a part to play in a young girl disappearing. Olivia Pope is the daughter of one of the most powerful – yet secretive – men in the world, working her way up to the White House alongside her President (and eventual lover), Fitz.

In the working world, this translates to the simple fact that increasing diversity does not mean that all “minorities” get a pass and all white males must feel bad for eternity. Every employee has room to grow and progress, provided every employee is able to embrace every aspect of their identity at work. Of course, the average employee will not have a backstory quite as dramatic as Cyrus’, Olivia’s, or Asher’s, but in the shows, just as in the real world, identities are central and play a huge role in how characters function in the show. When we enable our employees to be proud of their identity and bring that to work, their unique perspectives shine through.

Deliberate diversity produces better results

In HTGAWM, each of the main characters comes from different backgrounds in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and even class status. These differences often help the group, as one team member can draw on their background in order to help crack the case. In one episode, Connor’s boyfriend is able to hack into a database to get information on a lying cop. In another, Wes’ working-class background means he is more able to empathize with residents in a “bad area of town” than his co-workers, which helped him gain their trust to provide evidence for a case.

In the working world, different perspectives like these can help you reach new customers, better understand new ways of doing things, or even just provide a couple new ideas. The central idea is that these people are all valued for who they are, not just what they might be able to do, which leads to them being more comfortable using their unique talents, backgrounds, and access to solve a problem.

Deliberate diversity is a choice

When starting Scandal and HTGAWM, Shonda had her pick of many actors and actresses in the business. She was a well-regarded writer and had the backing of a major studio. She did not have to have a wide array of identities in her characters – she is a good enough writer that she could have given a completely homogeneous group depth in order to appeal to a large viewer base.

The working world has an interesting parallel to the TV casting world. There are often more qualified people than roles available, and hiring managers, like casting managers, have to make a choice. When hiring, however, it is important to look at the big picture and make active choices to hire more people from diverse backgrounds. Not only is this better for teams as a whole, it is better for business. And, if Scandal and HTGAWM are any indication, your office is sure to be more interesting if employees have different backgrounds and experiences.

So, when looking for your next hires, think like Shonda and build Deliberate Diversity.


Stefan is a diversity and inclusion consultant and Founder of Ziversity. He has a number of years of experience in the HR/diversity recruiting space, starting with his research at Yale University and continuing through numerous non-profit positions. He blogs about diversity, inclusion, tech, startups, and cultural commentary. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios. Business inquiries can be sent to stefan@ziversity.com.


Originally published on ziversity.com

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