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Bank of America’s Ebony Thomas: Diversity is so important because people can’t become what they don’t see

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

Bank Of America HR Resources Hiring Strategies

People want to go where they see themselves, they want to go where they can see their dreams and their career come to fruition — so being able to highlight that diversity is incredibly important.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking with hundreds of top experts in human resources to teach you what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. I had the pleasure of having an insightful conversation with Ebony Thomas. As soon as we started our call, I knew this episode would be special.

Ebony Thomas is a senior vice president in Global Human Resources at Bank Of America. She is the Executive for Market HR strategy and Enterprise Diversity recruiting. In addition to her executive career, Ebony serves as a board member for the Young Black Leadership Alliance and a corporate advisory member of the Carolina Clusters Career Pathways Initiative. She is also a member of the Board of Visitors for the School of Business at Howard University in Washington, DC. Her service to these organizations are rooted in Ebony’s commitment to transform approaches to student achievement, career success and improving generational socio-economic status in underserved communities. Ebony Thomas is a proud graduate of North Carolina A&T State University where she holds a BA degree in English and History. She lives in Charlotte with her three children, Evan, Croix and Ellis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been at the bank now a little over five years and I’m responsible for two primary things here.

Our diversity recruiting strategy. So how we go out and really illustrate who we are, the organization to bring in talent that reflects our customers and our clients. We do that at the collegiate level as well as our mid to exec level. I have a team of folks who focus on building out diverse pipelines for the many roles and opportunities that we have internal to the organization.

I also oversee our market HR strategy. We essentially have 91 markets across the U.S. so how do we make the bank feel smaller? How do we connect very closely to the customers and clients that are in our particular markets? And so, we’ve designed these markets. I have an HR team that really supports the leadership within that market on a whole host of things (ie. employee engagement, diversity, talent planning) within their particular local market.

Wonderful. Did you always want a career path in human resources? How did this come about?

I was at a university recently and was talking about this very same thing. No. By training background, I’m a teacher. I started out in the classroom actually, teaching middle school students English and History and loved it and thought that’s probably what I’m going to do. But I guess I’ve always had a drive for more and I love interfacing with the students, I loved interfacing with other teachers, with the community at large and so I think that career in education was a really good foundation for me in this particular career that I have now, — which I call really my second career.

I went to school as an English major. I went to a historically black college in North Carolina A&T State University. Like many of the students that go to university, you go in thinking, here’s where I want to be, here’s what I know, here’s what I see — in my life and my community, that’s what I saw. I saw a lot of teachers, particularly a lot of women of color who were educators and felt like that was the career path that I wanted to take. And over time, that career path morphed into so much more. I was very blessed to have opportunities and really translate my skills into different areas over time. From education to non-profit to professional services to healthcare tech to ultimately banking.

I love the industry, I love the pace of the industry, the people in which I interact with on a daily basis but I never thought graduating or entering college that I would ultimately be within Human Resources and focusing on the work that I am focused on. But it’s incredible to work for an organization that powers you to do that work and to do it in a way in which you bring your unique talents to it. So, it’s exciting.

What was it that you taught?

I taught English and History, which I loved. I’m an avid reader. I started out in college as an economics major, which is so interesting right? I thought I really wanted to go into business. Freshman year I don’t think it wasn’t really my skill set but to only it would become my skill set over time. But I love teaching History. I still love all things related to History and Reading and Language Arts. It’s so directly connected to the work that I do now. People say “Ebony, you’re a liberal arts major. How does that really help you in your career versus someone who is a finance major, accounting, or marketing?”. I think for me, History gives you context into the world.

It helps you think strategically, understand how people connect with each other, how they interact. I think the other majors do the same thing but over time, yes, I had to increase my skill set to understand accounting and finance, to be able to work through spreadsheets and understand and focus on data and analysis, but that came over time. I didn’t need that necessarily for the job that I took years ago. I think it is very necessary for people to have those strong technical skills now in HR. I’ve had companies that have invested in me to get me there, to get me those necessary additional skills and traits and that I needed to continue to be successful.

It’s just amazing where life takes us sometimes, isn’t it?

I am from a small town in North Carolina and so some days I marvel. I am incredibly humbled to recognize that your place in the world is not guaranteed and that the opportunities are afforded to people: that you should take advantage of them. When they come, sometimes you can say no and sometimes you say yes, but you just don’t know where they take you. So, it’s been an amazing journey and I still have a lot left to do. I feel like I’m just at the starting block.

You were a teacher. If you were to go back and talk to them today, what’s some advice you can give them for creating a career path of their own that maybe they can’t see right now? If you were there today, what would you tell them about some possible ways to better their future?

One of the things that we do quite well here at the bank is around economic social mobility and a lot of that really relates to the question of opportunity youth, like what do we talk about with those individuals at that age? Whether they decide that they want to go to college, whether they decide they want to go into community college, or whether they decide they want to go into trade. It’s educating those students on the options, which is a beautiful thing. And so what I would tell to them is you have so many more options. Expand your network, meet people. Don’t be loyal to this core set of beliefs and knowledge that you think you know because the world isn’t waiting. The world isn’t waiting for the next big thing. It’s happening right now.

So if you have what’s happening right now, go do it and go translate that into a career path. Create it for yourself. I think about my own career path and again, what I saw and what I knew were teachers. These were people who were really influential in my life. In the community in which I grew up, the vast majority of them were African American female teachers so that’s what I saw. I saw the strength and the character so I thought that’s what I wanted to become. Over time I realized that’s what I saw but as the world opened up for me, and as I began to get more exposure to other people, to other careers, to other ways of life, what I thought I knew became very different.

Telling these young people to explore, open your mind, do things that you think that you can’t do or that you wouldn’t normally do to be able to now see things that you can become that you don’t see in your community, in your neighborhoods, on the streets that you walk on every single day. The ability to explore and to be exposed is, outside of education, I think, the biggest game-changer for young people.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started a career?

Your readers who have been recruiters could tell you stories for days around just interesting people and how people process information and what’s important to them. So in my early career when I transitioned out of education to not for profit, I was a recruiter. And so I would go out and recruit talent. Assess a talent to come into different organizations and industries. When you’re out meeting people, sometimes authenticity or their real selves can translate into not good experiences. And so, some of my early experiences recruiting, I never forget I was at a big university in Ohio and this young man who comes to interview for one of the roles in which I was recruiting for did not have a sitter for his cat. So, he brought his cat to the interview. I am allergic to cats.

For me, number one: make this young man feel like his experience of me was going to be meaningful and valuable and so I wanted to acknowledge his situation. Wasn’t necessarily the best thing but he was still in college and he didn’t know. This is going back to how do you expose young people to decisions and to different things so they understand the do’s and the don’ts. He hadn’t been exposed to the do’s and don’ts obviously as he brought his cat. All the while, I am coughing, I am sneezing and I am itching and yet I want this young man to get through this interview and get through it successfully. He was incredibly nervous. He was incredibly apologetic. Needless to say, he did not get the job, but I remember him because he was definitely a character. It’s those memorable moments in people that you meet throughout your life. He was self-deprecating in a way that: “I know this is not ideal, but this is what I had to do.”

I can tell you stories upon stories of just recruiting bloopers, interviews of people who are prepared, some ill-prepared, some who are just incredibly nervous and cannot just quite get it together. But this goes back to one of the questions when you talk about candidates and people who are interviewing and attraction to organizations at its core, people want to be seen. They want to be valued for who they are. They want to feel like they belong in any organization or they can see themselves in that organization. And so as a recruiter, as a person who’s focused on bringing talent to the organization, my sole job is that any interaction that I have with a potential candidate is one that hopefully is memorable in a very positive way.

Can you share five techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job that you want to fill?

I think about it in its broadest sense and then I’ll narrow it down to even my own personal jobs that I have on my team. At the enterprise level, across the organization, since I own our diversity strategy and attraction of talent to the organization I would say:

1. Authenticity. People these days can see right through things that are not what they seem. This generation has created a level of transparency never seen before and I love it because it exposes organizations that are not authentic, who cannot really showcase their employees in a real way. When I think about attracting talent to the organization and not only retaining them, they want to know that I’m coming to a place where I see myself and I can be myself. But what does that really mean? Can I really walk in and be Ebony every day, all day and for me the answer is yes. I am me, my authentic self every day, regardless of who I’m interfacing with that authenticity shows. And so, when I’m out with candidates doing interviews, that same authenticity shows through and I think that is a number one way to attract talent to the organization.

2. White glove service. It’s just human nature. You want to be wanted and so when you are out talking to candidates or when candidates are applying to your roles or interested in what you have to offer as an organization, they want to feel like that they are unique and special in that process. And so, communicating with individuals, helping them navigate from point A to point B, what’s next for me — I think the companies who communicate incredibly well will ultimately win this concept of war on talent. People want to feel different or special and so anyone who can provide this white-glove service on a continuous basis are definitely the top employers.

3. The ability to showcase diversity inclusion. I talked earlier about how people can’t become what they don’t see. And so, when we highlight our people whether it’s on social feeds, whether it’s through articles like this, whether it’s through just everyday interaction at any one of our financial centers or any one of our organizations, we want to highlight the mix, the diversity, the different backgrounds that we have within the four walls of this organization. And that is an attraction to people.

People want to go where they see themselves, they want to go where they can see their dreams and their career come to fruition — so being able to highlight that diversity is incredibly important. Any corporation that can’t do that won’t win and that links back to authenticity too.

4. Benefits. I think our benefits are incredible in terms of what we not only offer incoming folks but for what we provide to our internal employees and teammates — are exceptional service that extends beyond the basic medical and dental but when I’m having a life event, who’s there on the other line helping me navigate that? So, we have a life event services team that’s really focused on when our employees are going through something critical, a death in the family, a new baby, a transition medically — there is someone there that’s helping them through every step of the way. I think that by doing that, it’s not only attracting talent, but it definitely retains talent in the organization as well.

#5. Curate events. We do specialized events that round out the authenticity, that round out the white glove, the diversity, the benefits. When you are coming to an event we are doing, we have the right people in play, it’s very intimate and small and people can actually have conversations with you about what do you want to do, what’s next for you, what have you been doing and how can I help you get there? At the market level and the enterprise level, we will focus on doing specialized curated events with many of our partners to bring talent to the table. At the end of the day, they may or not be looking but we want to say have you thought about Bank Of America? I can’t tell you how many people have left these dinners or events and I’m blown away by the people I met. You’re going to have some of the same challenges at any company, but it’s really going to be the people that you work with every single day that’s going to make the difference between you staying or leaving. And so, these events and opportunities help to highlight the amazing people that we have within the organization.

Are there any other strategies that you can think of that would be more geared towards retaining top employees at the company?

I think the benefits are critical to our employees, staying the engagement of our employees. We do the annual employee engagement survey throughout the organization. The results continue to get better and better every year and that just speaks to how connected we are to our employees, how connected to our teammates are to the bank and the work that we do. Communicating to our employees is also important about retaining. You want them to know all of what we are not only doing in your community and their community but how it actually helps them.

We ask our customers: what do you want the power to do? We also ask that of our employees too. You work for an amazing organization that is very influential within the communities and so, how would you want to leverage that power in your everyday life, in your community? So asking people, that gives them back the power to do that and harness the resources that the bank has to actually make that happen.

Helping managers be better managers, connecting them to the right resources to develop them even more, there is such a long list when we think about retaining talent. At the core of it, it links back to the inclusion piece of do I feel like I belong in this place? Can I show up every day as my true authentic self? I believe we have done an exceptional job of making every one of our teammates feel that way, which creates an environment in which people want to stay.

In support of these strategies, do you think it’s important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? And if so, what’s an example of what that might look like?

HR has transformed into so much more of how we think about talent, the talent of the future, or how do we have the right tools to make sure that we are investing in the right places and organizations and tools that will help enable for us to attract the talent of the future. Even my job from when I started to where I am now. We make very strategic data-driven decisions around people, around products that we help our people to succeed, the benefits in which we need to help our people live their best lives. How HR itself has transformed is incredibly amazing and part of that transforming is again, how do we create better leaders for our organization? How do we help enable better managers within our organization? How do we ensure that not only people feel like they belong, but how do we ensure that we also have a workforce that reflects the community that we serve so that people want to stay here every single day? Those are the things that come to mind for me.

What are some creative ways to increase the value provided to the employee so that they do want to say, or their happiness is increased without breaking the bank?

I love this one. The whole conversation around flexibility is so interesting to me because I think the way that people think about flexibility is, “I need to work in this location or I need to work 2 days from here or…”. Flexibility for me is really about listening. It’s really about understanding and having a connection to your employees. I think flexibility is one of the greatest ways to be creative, to retain employees and to bring value to employees without breaking the bank. It’s free and all it requires is listening. It requires you having a connection with your employees and them feeling like they belong and they’re connected.

The other thing is dialogue. We have a whole series of what we call courageous conversations within the bank. These courageous conversations can range from a number of topics from domestic abuse to our employees who are dealing with aging parents, to specific conversations around what is happening in my direct community. Having these conversations on a consistent basis with our employees let them know, “we hear you, we see you, we understand that what’s happening in your day to day life”. Being able to have those real conversations in an open forum is incredibly powerful.

It’s having open conversation and dialogue with your employees and your teammates so that you recognize what they’re going through day in and day out and you can’t check that at the door when you come in.

We actually do those to our recruiting sessions. We’ll ask folks what’s happening in their community. Let’s have an open dialogue, let’s have a courageous conversation — we’ll have facilitators and people have said it is so powerful that the bank is really leading the way in having this dialogue. Who thought 10 or 15 years ago that you could talk about these topics at work? We recognize that people don’t leave those when they come to work, they carry them with them so let’s talk about it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that movement be?

I love this. Inspire! I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Such a great question, by the way. I think what I would inspire people to do, and particularly in my space around diversity, is really think about skills and what you really need for the job.

I want my job to ultimately go away. I want my job to not exist anymore because we should really be thinking about talent in it’s truest, broadest form.

What is it that I need? What is the talent pool out there? I think it’s such an amazing talent pool out there and so when people say “there’s not enough diverse tech people”, I just don’t subscribe to that notion. I subscribe to there is a tremendous amount of talent that is out there. It may not come completely polished and ready but the talent does exist. And so, what I would inspire a movement to be is really thinking about talent in it’s broadest way. How do we move and shift our minds from thinking about “this is the person that I’m thinking about that fits in this role” and more thinking about “what is it that I need? What is the skill and how do I go and either build it, grow it and put it in there?”. I am so passionate about diversity recruiting, but I’m even more passionate about leveling the field of play and leveling it in a way that people start to think about talent, not just in two ways, but in very multidimensional ways.

Could you give us your favorite life lesson quote and how that’s been relevant to you in your life?

Yes, there’s way too many live quotes but I will go back to one of my favorite Dr. Maya Angelou’s words: “People will forget what you say and people will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

What was my impact? What was my legacy? When I was in that space, when I talked to that individual, when I connected with that group, how did I make them feel? How did my energy come across? Was I energy-giver or was I energy-sucker? And so, thinking about that in every single interaction that I have for me personally, even from an educator to now what I do now, what I love has never changed. The careers have changed and the roles have changed but this core, the connectivity to people, to be able to connect people, either to learning, to connect people to jobs, connect people to careers, that core foundation of what I love has never changed.

That’s great. You are definitely an energy giver! Some big names read this column. So, if there’s a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, who would it be? And why?

I would say right now Robert Smith. I just think what he is doing in the community. You know if you think about you can just go into a major historically black college or University Moorehouse at a commencement speech and say I am going to give you guys a fresh start and wipe out all of your debt and the debt of your parents I think is powerful. Talk about change and being the catalyst for change is simply amazing. I think Melinda Gates just dedicated millions of dollars to gender equity initiatives over the next 10 years. When you talk about these incredibly powerful people yet humble enough to say, “I’m going to invest in the future of others,” I just think it’s so incredibly powerful.

You’re creating change daily with what you’re doing. Diversity and inclusion is such an important topic so if there’s anything else that you want to say on the topic and/or anything else, go ahead.

It’s such a critical and important notion for people to understand what it means to belong. I think we talk about the word, but when you have to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand what it really means, it’s so incredibly powerful. I just would encourage all people to just take a step back, think about what it means to be truly in that person’s space, not only what it feels like cause you can’t, but understand the impact that those shoes have I think that would be incredible. Going back to my days as a teacher, when you want to save the world, that really never goes away. I still feel that way.

That’s true about Teachers, it just doesn’t go away! Thank you for doing this, I really appreciate you sharing so many wonderful insights.

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