Roosevelt Thomas Jr., Pioneer in Workplace Diversity, Dies

Former SHRM board member was among first thought leaders on diversity management

By May 22, 2013
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R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., Ph.D., a former Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) board member and a pioneer in diversity management in the workplace, passed away in Atlanta on May 17, 2013. He was 68.

For 28 years, Thomas was a leading speaker and author on diversity in the workplace. He published seven books on the topic, wrote numerous articles and was a diversity consultant to Fortune 500 companies, government entities, nonprofits and academic institutions.

“He was one of the first thought leaders to really start writing about diversity management,” said Shirley Davis, SPHR, vice president of diversity and inclusion at SHRM. “He was a big supporter of the work we did for diversity and inclusion.”

Thomas worked with SHRM to launch the largest U.S.-based study on the state of diversity management, which was published in January of 2008 under the title SHRM 2007 State of Workplace Diversity Management Report: A Call to Action. He joined the SHRM board of directors in 2003 for a two-year term.

Most recently, Thomas was president and CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training Inc. in Decatur, Ga. He was also president of the Atlanta-based American Institute for Managing Diversity (AIMD).

Mel Asbury, SPHR, BCC, president of Greensboro, N.C.-based Asbury Consulting, LLC, trained at Thomas’ institute more than 20 years ago.

“He was a pioneer in moving the entire field of diversity and inclusion beyond just race and gender,” Asbury said. “He made it more expansive and also caused it to become a mainstream function within the human resources profession.”

While speaking in 2007 at SHRM’s annual Diversity Conference & Exposition, Thomas outlined what he called the four stages of diversity management: having representation, managing relationships, managing workforce diversity and managing all strategic diversity mixtures. He said most companies were still operating at the representation and relationships stages.

“The field is stuck,” he told conference participants, adding that this was partly because some companies lacked continuity in diversity leadership roles. “Some organizations are stuck because there is such turnover in the role that they are not aware they are stuck.”

Thomas earned his doctoral degree in organizational behavior from Harvard University, a master’s degree in finance from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, graduating summa cum laude, from Morehouse College, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He served as secretary of Morehouse College, dean of Atlanta University’s Graduate School of Business Administration and assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. He was a 1962 graduate of Atlanta’s Howard High School.

In 2005, Thomas received Bennett College’s Chief Diversity Officers Forum’s Trailblazer in Diversity Award, according to Thomas’ online biography. In 1998 the National Academy of Human Resources elected Thomas as a fellow. TheWall Street Journal recognized him as one of the top 10 consultants in the country, and Human Resource Executive cited him as one of HR’s “Most Influential People.” In 1995 he received the American Society for Training and Development’s Distinguished Contribution to Human Resource Development award.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Judge Ruby J. Thomas.

A service is scheduled for 11 a.m. May 24, at Friendship Baptist Church, 437 Mitchell St. S.W., Atlanta.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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