Talking About Race in the Insurance Industry
Driving dialogue around diversity and inclusion can feel like a stepping into a minefield in any organization or industry. Around the world, social and political climates are changing at an extremely fast rate. Individuals, businesses and industries are under pressure to catch up and drive the cultural changes that will help to eliminate legacy issues and biases that have created obstacles for underrepresented communities. The insurance industry is no exception.
The Bias In Making Mistakes
Consider the simple act of making a mistake. Books, seminars and business leaders all talk about the value to be found in making and learning from mistakes. Yet according to a recent survey by Marsh and the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA), African Americans in the insurance industry feel they are allowed fewer opportunities to make mistakes than their white peers.
“African Americans are judged differently and therefore have fewer opportunities for mistakes,” noted one study participant. “We cannot however, use this as an excuse not to be excellent.”
Dialogue around race can create discomfort and anxiety for leaders and organizations due to the delicate nature of the topic and the fear of getting it wrong. This often leads either to avoidance in addressing the issues, or a focus on areas that are more comfortable for a historically white industry. This creates a culture in which neither the dominant nor minority group feel they have a safe space, freezing meaningful advancement on the issue.
When asked about the primary barriers to entering the insurance industry, study participants named “lack of exposure to the industry” and “lack of networks” as the top barriers, with racial bias lower on the list.
Just as technology is disrupting traditional business practices and norms, we need to disrupt our approach to building a diverse business culture. We can change the way we currently recruit, develop and retain talent by focusing on talent, educating senior leaders, building stronger mentorship structures, sponsoring minority communities and investing more in colleague resource groups. These are hardly new ideas, but there’s room to strengthen and expand upon existing efforts.
First and foremost, we have to build fluency among allies. This is a narrative that the LGBTQ population has understood for some time, and underscores the importance of insider groups opening doors for change. The insurance industry needs to create an ambassadorship program that will help drive dialogue with senior white leaders and give those leaders the tools to drive, execute and consult on issues related to race.
Absence of Information
While race is an important factor in pursuing or being recruited to the insurance industry, more important is the absence of information about career opportunities through formal or informal networks, college career placement offices or accessibility of African-American insurance professionals.
Once inside the industry, success hinges on such things as the opportunities driven by mentorships and sponsorships with senior leaders. “As a younger insurance professional at the time, my employer understood my desire to move into management. I expressed my career path. From there, I was assigned to a mentor who helped shaped my growth,” one participant said. “[Since then], my career has progressed. Now I am in a position where I can make decisions and lead others.”
Remove the biases
We need to debias industry processes. Companies should be partnering to address unconscious biases within processes that specifically lean towards racial profiling or nepotism. Every crossroad for talent, including recruiting, onboarding, performance evaluations, development, promotions and exits, should be examined.
Creating broader tools and access to resources for human resources, talent teams, managers and senior leaders helps to expand and align more inclusive industry standard best practices. In recruiting, for example, companies should move beyond conventional college campus efforts. Employers must build and nurture relationships with key faculty members, business and community leaders and other influential people who can increase awareness of insurance industry career prospects.
Finally, we need intersectionality. When discussing women, millennials or LGBTQ issues, we often approach strategies and dialogue that focus on the Caucasian narrative and experience, excluding the additional and layered challenges that people of color face within these communities. By forming broader partnerships, we can increase education in all dimensions, providing a stronger and more thoughtful workforce.
Long Term Investment
The study focused on African Americans, but it is also a stepping stone to expand dialogue around race in general. There are certainly specific differences in both representation and challenges for Hispanic, Asian and other multiracial identities, but there are also broad applications in the identification of obstacles and our approach to solutions. More in-depth research is needed to continue exploring the narratives and needs of all the represented racial and ethnically diverse populations within the insurance industry.
Sustainable improvement and change takes multiple conversations across an organization, customizable training and fluent trainers. It takes an entire industry to positively impact culture.