Diversity Recruiting Lessons… from Broadway?

Jessica Lee Audacious Ideas, Candidate Pool, Diversity, Good HR, Jessica Lee

I recently came across an interesting article about Broadway’s efforts to woo black audiences to the theater, and there was so much about how they were going about their recruiting efforts that just seemed so right and so in line with my philosophies on how best to approach diversity initiatives in the workplace.

Broadway For background, overall attendance at Broadway shows is down. Bad news for the business. But show producers are trying to tap into an untapped market – black audiences who haven’t historically been Broadway’s mainstay. Seemingly fitting as right now on Broadway you have the shows Memphis, Fela!, Race, and the revival of Fences – all shows centered on black characters. You also have Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical, The Scottsboro Boys and The Mountaintop coming to the stage in the fall. But how to get black patrons to Broadway?

Recruitment has had to go beyond simply advertising with targeted communities, just as I think the best diversity initiatives go beyond just posting with targeted job boards or media sites. To get results, you’ve gotta go deeper, and you’ve got to do more. But how?

    • Use of focus groups. What do people from target communities you’re trying to woo really think? What’s working and what’s not working? What are the obstacles that stop them from pursuing careers in your industry (or in the case of Broadway, attending a show or being interested in a specific show)? Focus groups can help you get to the truth of the matter. You can’t make assumptions about motives, and you have to hear things from the horse’s mouth.


  • Who is the face of the show? What may have been causing low attendance among black patrons in the first place? Well, what if an audience, or candidates in our case, simply wanted to see someone who looks like them looking back at them from the stage? Read through some of the comments of the article itself to hear this sentiment echoed. It’s not accessible – a show or a workplace – unless there are people looking back at you who look like you. For further proof of concept, ask me sometime why I wanted to be a TV journalist when I was younger.



  • Word of mouth rules. In our world, we have employee referrals – who doesn’t love them? They’re reliable. They’re trusted. And Broadway agrees. “…The producers of “Memphis” credit word of mouth among black people for helping keep the show alive through slow-selling weeks to reach the Tony Award voting season that began in May and ended when “Memphis” won the top award for best new musical this month.” If a trusted friend gives a recommendation, you listen. Common sense.



  • Go to where they are. Diversity recruiting isn’t simply a case of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ You’ve got to get out there, to wherever your target community actually is, and actively recruit. Get on their turf. Taking a cue from  “Fela!,” about the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, “… [they] have sent vans emblazoned with the show’s logo and playing Mr. Kuti’s music to racially diverse neighborhoods, where the drivers hand out brochures for the show and talk it up to passers-by,” reports the New York Times. In some ways, it’s a matter of respect. Show up and make the invitation – in person.



  • Start young. Transactional efforts to get diverse audiences interested in a specific job, or a specific show, are just that – transactional. They aren’t lasting in nature. Broadway and your organization or industry both want a strong pipeline that continuously feeds from the targeted community to the stage. Or your workplace. But to make that happen, you’ve got to start young and get them interested early. From the article –  “To expose young people to Broadway and, with luck, spread word about the show to more parents, the ‘Memphis’ producers spent $75,000 on their own program, Inspire Change, that has sent cast members into schools and then students from those schools — nearly 1,000 so far — to the musical.” An easy parallel for us to make to the workplace are movements to increase the number of women and girls in the fields of math and science. What if there isn’t a natural pipeline of talent into your industry or roles you actively recruit for – but changing that and making it more diverse is important to you?  You’ve simply got to start early and be in it for the long haul with your efforts.


There are talent lessons to be learned everywhere around us – and especially outside of the traditional HR and recruiting world. Today we turn to Broadway. Other days, we turn to sports or pop culture. The lessons are everywhere though. You just have to take off your blinders and open your eyes to see them around you.