Making Human Resources an Instrument of Empowerment

Making Human Resources an Instrument of Empowerment

Nikki Lanier, J.D. ’95
Nikki Lanier, J.D. ’95

Nikki Lanier, J.D. ’95, was like many other kids growing up, constantly begging her parents to let her out of the house and skip the next boring dinner party. But in Lanier’s case, her father was an administrator at Hampton University in Virginia, her mother was chair of the English department, and dinner guests at their idyllic campus home included Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Toni Bambara, Amiri Baraka, and a slew of other artists, educators, and civil rights leaders.

“I’m in middle school. Are you kidding me? I’d rather be with my friends at the movies,” Lanier says now, laughing at her younger self.

As a student at the University of Miami School of Law, it wasn’t until years later that the lessons about racial inequality she overheard so often as a child finally took root. And that revelation came from an unlikely source: Professor Irwin P. Stotzky.

The longtime professor taught his students about his work representing Haitian migrants in South Florida, showing how those Black immigrants were treated so poorly compared to the open door provided to whiter Cubans. Stotzky showed Lanier in practical terms how a facially neutral government policy had been racially discriminatory.

Listening to this Jewish white man talk about racism in ways that I’d never heard white people talk about it before, I don’t know, it sparked something in me that remains with me to this day. It awakened a fundamental understanding for me I hadn’t actually articulated on my own behalf: the tenuous nature of mattering while black.

That awakening would become her life’s work. She was already active at Miami Law, writing for the school newsletter, participating in moot court, and serving as a member of the Society of Bar and Gavel, and the Black Law Students Association. But when she got her Juris Doctor in 1995, she finally knew what she wanted to do with it.

Re-Envisioning HR

At first, when she was a young associate at a firm in Boca Raton in the late 1990s, the companies she represented didn’t even know what they were supposed to be doing. Lanier walked her clients through the basics of harassment suits, discrimination suits, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

“Employers were still perplexed with how exactly to behave in the midst of difference, how does white behave with Black, how do men behave with women,” she said. “Equity wasn’t even on the scene. We didn’t have those words.”

Lanier would go on to change the hiring, firing, and compensation practices of some of the largest organizations in the country, showing them how to use human resources departments not as the “office police,” but as an instrument of empowerment.

Lanier served as the top human resources official at Charter Schools USA in Florida and Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona. She was a senior human resources executive at Phillip Morris and Georgia Pacific. Lanier was a senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She became the youngest—and the first Black female—appointed to the position of Personnel Cabinet Secretary (the chief human resources officer) for the state of Kentucky.

In each case, Lanier said she was brought in as an “agent of change” to reorient each organization in a more equitable and modern direction. In some cases, that meant ordering regularly-scheduled performance reviews—and raises—to replace sporadic review systems that have historically left women and other minorities behind. In other cases, it meant redefining the mission of human resources departments by talking with employees—not managers—to create “mission vision values” that the entire department could follow.

More broadly, Lanier says she realized the workplace’s power to affect societal change.

“There’s something about what happens in the workplace that dictates how they go home and parent and what kind of spouse they show up to be and how they care for their family and their community,” she said.

Back to Her Roots

After 25 years of serving in various public and private sector positions, Lanier realized it was time for a change. It was 2020, the world was still grappling with COVID-19, and she was struggling to cope with the wave of shootings that sparked a new wave of civil rights protests around the country.

Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery.

“Something inside of me honestly died,” she said.

So, in 2021, the married, working mother left her position at the Federal Reserve Bank and started her own racial equity advisory firm, Harper Slade. She continues to help companies improve working conditions for all their employees by explicitly focusing on the work environment experienced by Black and brown employees. She has expanded her work as a speaker at conferences and events. But the firm’s name represents Lanier’s renewed focus on family and history.

The firm is named after her maternal grandmother, Ernestine Johnson Slade, and her paternal grandmother, Lenora Harper Robinson. They were working women involved in the civil rights movement, quietly assisting NAACP leaders with their office work.

“Both of my grandmothers were incredibly committed to their church, incredibly committed to God, incredibly focused on family, but very open and very transparent with their own struggles about how to feel about their home country and how their home country felt about them,” she said.

Lanier is carrying on their work, one client at a time.