Geri Thomas: Inclusion Is a Bank’s Best Friend

In the summer of 1970, Geri Thomas was working in Atlanta as a teller at Citizens & Southern National Bank, tending to customers as they went about the business of managing their finances at the small bank branch.

Little did she know that summer job would turn into a four-decade career with one of the most influential institutions in the world.

Now, Thomas is the chief diversity officer of Bank of America Corp., the second largest U.S. bank holding company by assets, at just more than $2 trillion. Bank of America, through a series of mergers and consolidations, absorbed what was Citizens & Southern National Bank.

“I actually came out for a summer job, which turned into a 43-year-long summer,” Thomas said in May, just short of her 44th anniversary in June. 

It’s safe to say that Thomas’ days are now a bit more complicated than they were when she was a teller in Georgia. For instance, she was recently in Hong Kong connecting with employee networks in eight different countries — an exercise, she said, that is par for the course as CDO for a global financial institution.

“It was not delayed; it was real time, and they could see me and I could see them,” Thomas said. “We make sure we’re connected in that way.”

Connection leads to a feeling of inclusion, which is a main objective for Thomas as the leading strategist for Bank of America’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Like most CDOs, her job’s focus isn’t solely on bringing in people of different identities and backgrounds; its purpose is making sure those groups feel comfortable enough at work to help make Bank of America successful.

“It’s not just about women; it’s not just about people of color; it’s not just about folks who have disabilities,” she said. “It’s about everyone being able to bring their whole self to work and being able to contribute.”

The 44-Year-Long Summer

Although the name of Thomas’ bank changed to Bank of America through several acquisitions and mergers, she has stayed with the same organization since college.

At the time she was a teller at C&S, Thomas was a student at Clark Atlanta College; after a year, she transferred to Georgia State University. Thanks to tuition reimbursement through C&S, Thomas was able to go to school as an industrial psychology major, a field she chose because she wanted to pursue a career in human resources.

“I wanted to be the person who made the decision of who could get a job,” Thomas said.

As C&S went through its metamorphoses, finally becoming part of Bank of America in 1998, Thomas’ career was changing, too. After four years working the front lines as a member of the customer account group and banking center, she moved into HR, where she would remain.

Since joining the department, Thomas said she has done almost every job there is to do, including running the whole function — which included promotions, compensation and training for Bank of America’s Georgia branches.

Those duties included diversity and inclusion, an aspect of the job that Thomas had seen firsthand as a black woman growing up in Atlanta.

Inclusion was at the core of her education experience. She attended integrated schools in high school before going to predominately black Clark College. Once she moved to Georgia State, Thomas was back in a world where very few people looked like her. “I had probably been there three years before I had a class with any black students,” she said. “It was an all-white university for all intents and purposes.”

Now Thomas is on the board of trustees at the Georgia State Foundation and serves as an adviser to the Robinson College of Business. She said Georgia State now graduates more African-Americans than any other school in the country, including historically black colleges like her first alma mater.

Meanwhile, at C&S Thomas was at the front of the movement toward inclusion, although at that time she focused more on diversity. During her early years as part of the HR group, Thomas developed the bank’s first written affirmative action plan. She was also part of the first diversity council at NationsBank in the early 1990s.

At the same time, she continued to manage HR for the bank’s Georgia branches until 2002, when its diversity executive position became available and she was asked to take it on in addition to her roles as an HR generalist and staffing executive for two major markets.

“I say ‘add that role’ because there’s no moving ‘into’ roles here at the firm,” she said. “It’s very rare you get a single role … I wouldn’t know how to work with one job.”

So Thomas’ responsibilities grew, from managing just Georgia to overseeing diversity and inclusion for the global bank.
Thomas has seen progress since her time on the diversity council at NationsBank. In the four decades Thomas has been with the bank, the world has changed.

As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and founder of diversity and talent research organization the Center for Talent Innovation, said, “Gone are the days when diversity was some kind of side project.”

Now the concept of inclusion is valued just as highly as diversity. To those who work with her, Thomas’ skills as an HR professional have made inclusion in the workplace easier to achieve. Andrea Smith, Bank of America’s global head of human resources, said Thomas is a sounding board for employees at all levels of leadership. 

“To make positive and lasting change like Geri has done, you have to stop and listen to different points of view and make sure that everyone can participate in the dialogue,” Smith said. “This leads to better programs and outcomes, but more importantly it helps make diversity and inclusion part of the culture.”

A Measure of All Things

To make inclusion goals easier to achieve, Thomas’ team has put a metric in place that makes diversity and inclusion a concrete status instead of an abstract idea.

“The word was you don’t really want to measure what you do in D&I, because that might be perceived as having quotas,” Thomas said. “My rationale was everything in our firm we measure. If this is important, how can we not measure it?”

To get around the taboo of a quota, Thomas made sure her metrics would figure directly into measuring performance rather than workforce demographics. For example, Thomas said she measures how many people of color and women are represented across all lines of business, particularly at the top.

Thomas said Bank of America doesn’t have a target number, but rather looks to echo the environment. “We don’t have a goal that says 50 percent of every one of our managers are women,” Thomas said. Instead, the bank benchmarks against the best in its industry.

Putting in a metric alone speaks to the amount of progress made in Thomas’ diversity and inclusion efforts. Employees have started paying attention to inclusion — not because there’s a goal to meet but because they’re constantly looking at the numbers, planning around them and being thoughtful in their own contribution to making Bank of America more inclusive.

With Inclusion for All

Thomas credits the increase in people of color and women in the firm’s senior ranks to this new focus on metrics. The financial services company’s employees are mostly female, and 40 percent of executive-ranking employees at the bank are women.

Bank of America is also listed as a national corporate partner for LGBT rights by the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyers’ Guide. Measuring LGBT employees proves to be a bit trickier, however; unlike gender and race, sexual orientation is not visually recognizable.

To remedy this, Thomas started a campaign late this summer that aims to give employees the chance to self-identify. She also conducts surveys that allow employees to volunteer their sexual orientation so they can see how LGBT workers are distributed across businesses and ranks.

Similarly, Thomas counts how many people participate in any of Bank of America’s 12 employee networks — groups that connect people based on gender, military experience, LGBT status and race. More than 65,000 employees around the world take part in these groups, and Thomas said that people who identify as active members rate their job satisfaction three points higher than nonparticipants.

But inclusion goes beyond personal identities. At a global institution, one of Thomas’ biggest challenges is making sure everyone is involved, no matter where they are geographically.

An online communications site links employees to each other and their leadership. Thomas travels to major Bank of America locations around the world annually, and virtual connections are still a major way to makes sure foreign locations feel valued. But even telepresence has to be handled carefully to prevent non-U.S. employees from feeling excluded.

For example, accommodating time zones is a major challenge. If Thomas plans a teleconference for 2 p.m. in Georgia, that means an employee in Hong Kong will have to be on the call at 2 a.m. “The unintended consequence of those types of things could potentially be ‘We don’t want you to be included because we’re not even giving consideration to you,’ ” she said. 

That consideration extends not only to who’s present in the meetings, but also who’s contributing to the firm’s diversity initiatives. Thomas imports practices from non-U.S. company locations such as London, where they created a program that allows employees to sign up as allies to LGBT pride groups.
Inclusion on the home front is important, too, which means getting managers involved. Tellers don’t have their own email addresses, but they do have daily huddles in their banking centers, so managers are imperative to making sure the messaging reaches them.

Managerial Excellence

Managers play a much bigger role than just acting as conduits for corporate communication. Because 75 percent of them manage 80 percent of the bank’s employees, they are Thomas’ top target for diversity and inclusion implementation. “You have to start there because you can’t implement from the bottom up,” she said.

This year all managers’ performance plans have to contain a diversity and inclusion role, such as being involved with an employee network or mentoring someone with a different background.

Managers also have to participate in Managerial Excellence, an educational program that started in May and provides skills managers need to lead and manage their employees. The first order of business is two weeks of diversity and inclusion training.

As part of the program’s first chapter, guest speakers presented to more than 1,200 managers. Thomas made sure the sessions were recorded so managers who were working during the classes could participate later.

Starting a managerial learning program with diversity and inclusion made it clear that having a diversity-driven mindset is a core competency. Connecting diversity and management “would do incredibly powerful things, not just to retention and acceleration of key talent at the bank, but also as a huge force in terms of connecting with the marketplace,” said Hewlett, the program’s first presenter.

Hewlett spoke on executive presence and female investors, both topics she had researched with help from Thomas, whose commitment to the field shows up in the work she does to help people like Hewlett study executive diversity.

Helping with research, deploying programs and monitoring metrics all branch from how Thomas sees her job — as one with lots of challenges but just as many opportunities to be part of the solution.

“The good thing about diversity is it’s not anything you have to do,” Thomas said. “That’s what I like about what I’m doing as chief diversity officer. It’s not mandated; it’s doing the right thing for the right reasons.”