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Eric Thomas recently began his new role as Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Genesys. I spoke with Eric to get a better understanding of where he comes from and his vision for the future in this role.
What barriers — either personally or professionally — have you faced because of the color of your skin? How did you overcome them?
Eric Thomas: I grew up in the Southern part of the United States (Texas) where systemic racism is a dominant part of the culture. It’s in our schools, churches and the workforce. Many of the barriers I faced were rooted in prejudices and biases; people would predetermine your character based on the colour of your skin. Colorism, which is being judged by the lightness or darkness of your skin, was a factor as well. The darker your skin, the more of a threat you were. So, for me, being a dark-skinned African American was a double whammy.
I never wanted to be seen as the victim or fall into some statistical trap. So, I focused on being non-threatening. I focused on proving people wrong; that I was not the stereotype that lived in their heads. This meant I had to stay focused, disciplined and take every opportunity to prove to the naysayers I was just as good and, in some cases, better than anyone else at whatever the task or job was.
An additional barrier was being from a small rural town with a limited industry of opportunities. The better-paying employment opportunities (for the non-educated) were commonly reserved for whites leaving minorities with low-skilled, low-paying work. I knew at an early age getting an education was going to be the best option toward having a better quality of life. That meant a keen focus on academics as a ticket out.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was born from tragic events. What are your hopes for what the movement leads to?
Eric: The Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in the belief that Black lives are just as valuable as any life. It does not mean all lives do not matter; it’s not all lives continuously dying at the hands of police or vigilantes in the US. There is so much work to do and so many paths to pursue. The role I have chosen in the BLM movement is to drive immediate police reform. We need to overhaul our policing system to root out individuals who shouldn’t have the daily responsibility of life and death in their hands. We need a new approach toward policing that increases the trust in our public safety institutions across the Black community. Police reform is a short-term focus. Over time, it’s my hope to see a change in the hearts and minds of people to ultimately eradicate systemic racism in our institutions — be it education, the justice system, corporate America and so on. That is my hope.
How can corporations, like Genesys, contribute to the BLM movement?
Eric: My wife often says that being an ally is reflected in your willingness to give your time, your talent or your treasure. There are so many ways Genesys and other corporations can contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some corporations are contributing by donating money to various social justice initiatives. Others are pledging their support by accepting the challenge to change their corporate culture and practices with recruitment, talent development and promoting Black talent within their organisations. There is an inter-generational opportunity as well. How do we connect with the youth to expand the pipeline of African American talent and close the equity gaps that exist in the percentages of Black employees across corporations and Black executive representation? There are so many opportunities here. I believe it comes down to the role Genesys and other corporations decide to play. When looking in the rear view mirror five or 10 years from now, what imprint was left? What real change was made?
Diversity, equity and inclusion are powerful words. What do they mean to you?
Eric: Diversity in the workplace means recognising the uniqueness and differences among our employees. These differences are multi-dimensional, including gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age and others. The uniqueness of each of these groups offers a level of diverse talent, thinking, innovation and creativity.
When linked with diversity, equity is about achieving balance. It’s about recognising systemic barriers that prevent marginalised groups from having the same opportunities as the dominant culture and eliminating those barriers providing a more level playing field. When achieved, it creates the opportunity for a more balanced demographic representation of our workforce — a balance in opportunities for development and promotions for everyone as well as equal pay for folks performing the same job, regardless of their demographic background or gender.
When we move toward achieving these balances, inclusion means having a sense of belonging — the confidence and ability to bring your authentic self to work. Inclusion also means having a voice; being heard, understood and remembered. It’s not enough to just have a seat at the table.
How does your professional background prepare you for this new role?
Eric: I have spent the past 20 years of my career in a leadership role managing lines of business. My own personal experiences, along with leading globally diverse teams, opened my eyes to challenges that were unique to each group. These experiences shaped my approach toward leadership and helped me in defining the role I needed to play, which was more than just managing the business; it was also shaping the culture.
I needed to be involved in the reshaping of cultural dynamics, enabling folks to bring their authentic selves to work; to be comfortable and confident in who they are and how they contribute. This led to my involvement in founding several affinity groups, including LGBTQ and African American groups, that create safe spaces for folks to share their experiences, drive broader cultural awareness across the company, and forge partnerships with business and HR leaders to institute changes in our hiring, people development and promotion practices. I didn’t know it then, but I now realise those experiences laid the foundation for my current role.
This is a new role at Genesys. What helps you shape the direction for diversity, equity and inclusion?
Eric: Eva Majercsik and I are still discussing the overall approach and manifesto, but I believe there needs to be a focus on creating awareness on global cultural differences, understanding where we have equity gaps, working toward a better balance and educating our teams on biases and other factors that limit true inclusion.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) were not invented by the Black Lives Matter movement. DE&I concepts have been around for decades — and there are industry best practices that can help guide our approach at Genesys. The Genesys family of employees will also play a significant role. This is OUR initiative and OUR priority, globally. We will listen to your input, needs and even critiques to work toward policies and practices that benefit the overall vision. We will build this together.
What do your first 90 days in this role look like?
Eric: There is a tremendous amount of excitement around Genesys’ focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a ground swell of people who have volunteered to support the DE&I advisory council. We have several people super-charged about establishing affinity groups and creating global cultural awareness.
We will spend some time building out the framework and governance model for the DE&I office and advisory council. We’ll leverage the growing excitement by galvanising the great number of Genesys family members into an organised approach to begin quickly executing on a few key initiatives, such as unconscious bias training and our Affinity Group operating model. This will provide traction and momentum toward a multi-year, sustainable set of strategies. I believe it’s important to seize the enthusiasm we’re seeing across Genesys. This will be a very active and fun-filled 90 days.
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