7 Lessons on diversity and inclusion from a Hiscox HR leader
Human Resources is an important function at any company, and Alexis Palmer has become a bit of an institution here at Hiscox. She’s the Head of HR for US Operations and Claims and has been working at Hiscox for almost eight years. Before the pandemic, employees could often be seen lining up at her desk for sage advice, and she continues to partner with the HR Team to support all 500 employees in the US even as we work from home. She has extensive HR experience and has expanded more into the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) space in recent years. As a woman of color, she has first-hand experience with many of the hurdles that people of color often have to overcome at work.
When asked what brought her to Hiscox, Alexis says, “Love is what brought me here and love is what keeps me here.” She moved to Atlanta from South Carolina with her husband after they got married to be closer to family and to start their own family, and as she attests, the family she’s created at Hiscox is what keeps her here. “My team – we're like a family, and that's something that you can't buy any place else.”
In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with Alexis to get her unique perspective on the HR and D&I landscape and how to create more inclusive spaces for people of color in the workplace.
7 lessons on Diversity & Inclusion
There has been more focus on D&I in recent years and especially since last summer when protests for racial justice forced people to look inward and ask themselves if they’re doing enough to elevate the voices of people of color. But there is more work to be done.
Lessons for employers
1. Accountability is key
Part of making the necessary changes in an organization to foster a more inclusive workplace is putting accountability at the forefront.
“There's a lot of talk, and unfortunately, it's on the heels of some very tragic events within the US,” says Alexis. “One thing I do think that's missing is accountability from a diversity and inclusion perspective. Who is here to say, ‘Hey, this is just the wrong decision,’ or ‘we're making a hasty decision?’”
2. Break the cycle of exclusion in recruiting
When you have accountability in an organization, it’s easier to ensure that you’re not falling into patterns of recruitment that could be shutting out people of color.
“It's easy to reach out to your network and say, ‘Do you know someone that has worked in the insurance world?’ More than likely that person is non-diverse because, historically, people who are non-diverse have worked in the insurance industry,” says Alexis.
“That fast track of recruitment can lead to continuing the cycle. So it's about taking a risk on maybe a different profile or not rushing to fill a job and holding yourself accountable to build a net of diverse candidates.”
Lessons for employees
3. Look up
To help diverse employees feel that they belong in corporate spaces, Alexis’s advice is to, “Look up. If you're in the room, you deserve to be there. And nothing that you say is going to stop you from being worthy of being in that room, so ask the questions, speak up, be heard.
“I’ve often walked into a room and felt like I didn't belong. And that may have been because I was the only person that looked like me, because I felt like I wasn't as smart or as knowledgeable as the people who were in that room, or they may have looked fancier.
“If you're in the room, you deserve to be there.”
4. Be authentic
If you are a person of color, navigating how to push back against intersectional invisibility, which is the tendency to be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten due to one’s status as a member of two underrepresented and devalued groups, can be tricky. Alexis suggests the following:
“Especially for black women, there is this sense that we are invisible and that in order to be heard, you have to be extra loud and extra visible, and that comes with this strong kind of bravado because we don't want to be seen as too soft. We don't want to be seen as [though] we can't handle a job. But there's a way to do that in a way that you don't lose your true, authentic self.”
“Build genuine relationships and find how you connect with those around you. Be open to learning something new as well as sharing a little of yourself as these connections help people see you for who you truly are and the value you bring. Don’t leave room for someone to write your story…tell it!”
5. Create your own board of directors
Being authentic isn’t always easy, and Alexis knows this firsthand. She suggests creating your own support group to help.
“Talk to what I call your ‘board of directors.’ That's people that you solely trust that you can talk to for feedback and talk through a certain situation. You feel as though you are going to get genuine feedback that you can incorporate into your style.”
6. It’s all about the conversation
Having frequent and open conversations about D&I is paramount to its success in an organization. And as an employee, if you’re experiencing issues in your work life, Alexis has this sound advice:
“Come to the table with some sort of solution. I don't always think that the answer just has to come from the manager or the person that you had the conflict with. You can come to the table with an issue and talk through solutions together.”
“Not assuming that there is malicious intent, unless otherwise proven, is a way of breaking down the walls that could lead to some healthy and transformative conversations and, eventually, evoke long-lasting change. A company’s D&I journey will never reach its full potential without the help of champions and change agents within the organization that are willing to be a part of the change they want to see.”
7. Harness your power
Creating spaces where everyone feels safe, heard, and that they can be their authentic selves is a crucial way to foster more diversity and inclusion. And if you don’t feel that you have a space like that, there are opportunities to create one.
Alexis takes inspiration from Mary McLeod Bethune, co-founder of Bethune-Cookman University, which is a historically Black college. She was a philanthropist, led civil rights organizations, and advised Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt on African-American issues. She was the only African-American delegate to attend the founding convention for the United Nations.
Bethune is an inspiration to Alexis because, “She created her own school to educate black girls. And for me, that's powerful. If the world isn't ready for something that you know it's time for, you have the power regardless of how others may see you. She created a space in a lane that says, if you won’t educate my people, I will.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, and, in fact, every month, it’s important that we keep in mind strategies to improve D&I. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but by working together employees can both be part of the conversation and the solution.