Stephen Colbert explains ‘extraordinary’ steps he took to get a diverse staff

Simply saying you want a diverse staff is not enough to get you one. Just ask Late Show host Stephen Colbert. In an interview with Sopan Deb for TimesTalks, he talked about his “naiveté” with thinking that he could ask for more diverse candidates to apply for his writers’ room at his previous show The Colbert Report, and that would be enough.

“I had been very frustrated at the old show about my inability to find diverse candidates for the show,” he said about how he thought “the usual process would get you the unusual room.”

Under typical application processes, agents and managers rely on word of mouth and referrals to fill up application pools and get writers to send packets of their best material. But that was not working, so Colbert took his call for diversity one step further.

“It wasn’t until we said, no please, don’t send us anyone but women. Because we would say, you know it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said no, only women, and then I got 87 women,” he said. “And I thought, where were these people before? And that was sort of the realization of my naiveté — that it’s not enough to say you want it.”

Colbert explains how to go beyond the typical hiring process

Late night television comedy is historically a white, male-dominated space at all levels. Ninety-one percent of TV showrunners are white, 86% of writers are white and 80% of showrunners are men, according to a UCLA study.

Colbert said his call for strictly diverse candidates was an “extraordinary step to get an extraordinary room,” and that now at his show, half of his writers’ staff are women or writers of color. But to get the best people at your table, putting in the time and effort to get the best hires should become ordinary. Relying on who you know is not going to give you an inclusive staff, a 2017 PayScale survey proved. The researchers found that job referrals disproportionately help white men and that out of every 100 employees referred, “44 of them will be white men, 22 will be white women, 18 will be men of color and only 16 will be women of color, holding constant industry, location, and other relevant variables.”

Getting an inclusive staff means going beyond word of mouth and actually putting in the work. You need to go beyond the hiring pipeline of your network.

As Shani Hilton, executive editor at BuzzFeed News, explained. “Everyone starts with their networks. But maybe your network isn’t sufficient.”

“If all you’re turning up is white dudes, that’s a feature, not a bug, in the system,” she said about diverse hiring practices. “Look at the sources of your references, beyond your friends and immediate colleagues, and evaluate whether you’ve done all you can to make sure you’re considering a wider variety of backgrounds than, say, white guys from different parts of the country.”