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Attorneys Alyesha Asghar Dotson And Corinn Jackson On The Launch Of Littler’s IE&D Playbook And The Building Of Recession-Proof Cultures – Above the Law

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Alyesha Asghar Dotson

“Pay me in equity…” Beyonce

This week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Littler Mendelson shareholder Alyesha Asghar Dotson and principal Corinn Jackson.

We discussed last month’s launch of Littler’s Inclusion, Equity & Diversity (IE&D) Playbook: a comprehensive collection of resources designed to help employers navigate the legal and practical considerations associated with IE&D programs.

Corinn Jackson

Corinn Jackson

The Playbook is a free, self-service tool that provides employers with resources — including videos, FAQs, podcasts, and high-level summaries — that help answer fundamental IE&D compliance questions, assess current efforts, uncover gaps and challenges, and identify IE&D programming opportunities.

Time and time again during this pandemic, we have witnessed companies make front page news not for their products or services, but rather for their cultures and how they treat employees. As an advisor to IE&D firms like Onboard Health and The Diversity Movement, I continue to be inspired by organizations that are investing in their workforce and fostering inclusive environments for their employees. But I’ve also been in the room when a companies’ leaders regretablly admitted that they simply did not know where to begin on this enterprise workstream.

This week’s conversation with Dotson and Jackson was uber-helpful in understanding IE&D foundational and organizational frameworks. For organizations taking a 2022 inventory of their human capital and aiming to improve IE&D amongst their workforces in 2023, this may be the Q4 conversation and compendium you’ve been searching for. Without further ado, here is a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

Renwei Chung: Can you share with us a bit about your backgrounds and what drew you to your current practice of law and inclusion, equity, and diversity (IE&D)?

Alyesha Asghar Dotson: In addition to being an employment attorney who finds this continually evolving area of employment law intellectually fascinating, I am personally invested in the success of IE&D programming as a member of several historically marginalized communities.

But, as corporate America — and, indeed, employers across the world — pushed towards IE&D even before the events of 2020, it became apparent to me that enthusiastic IE&D programming without legal know-how could result in unsuccessful and unsustainable results.

In other words, employers who engaged in IE&D without a thorough understanding of the legal landscape were likely to unintentionally misstep and incur legal liability. The natural result of being burned in that manner would be a chilling effect on IE&D as a whole and the entire movement coming to naught.

As such, I wanted to contribute to channeling employers’ efforts toward legally compliant IE&D efforts with a focus on achieving sustainable and long-term change.

Corinn Jackson: Long before I started professionally using terms like inclusion, equity, and diversity, the principles were important to me just being Black and a woman working my way through life and its institutions. Then as a management-side employment defense attorney for most of my career, I’ve had this really exciting opportunity to help employers navigate a rapidly evolving employment law landscape.

For me, I felt a natural fit between how my background and experiences have shaped me as a person and an employment lawyer, and working with employers to help them understand their workplaces and develop lawful and meaningful IE&D initiatives.

RC: What was the impetus for the IE&D Playbook?

AAD: As I provided advice and counsel to my clients in the IE&D space on the hour and day after day, I realized that I was repeating much of the same 101 level foundational information. I also found that there was no compendium of IE&D information that I could comfortably refer them to that was equal parts heart and head.

While I am, of course, always glad to talk to employers about any aspect of IE&D, I wanted to solve for that impediment and create an easy-to-use and cost-effective — in the case of the IE&D Playbook, “free” — solution for employers to learn more about IE&D basics so that they could optimize their IE&D dollars toward the achievement of their greater IE&D efforts.

RC: The past few years, colloquially being referred to as the “Great Resignation” and “Great Churn,” have left many organizations in quite a bind. What can employers do to combat employee turnover or to better attract and retain talent?

CJ: There is no question that the pandemic and other major events of the past few years, termed “turnover shocks” by organizational psychologists, have fundamentally shifted both how we work and how we view our relationships with our workplaces.

Workers are less likely to stay at companies where they are unhappy, where they do not feel valued, and with organizations whose core values they feel do not align with their own. In this landscape, employers who center principles of IE&D — including developing policies and programming that create a workplace culture grounded in inclusivity and clearly messaging their organizational goals and values — will be better positioned to both attract and retain talent.

RC: It’s been interesting, from the perspective of a startup advisor and angel investor, that so many companies have made the headlines for their culture and treatment of employees (not their product or services) during the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you make of this?

AAD: IE&D is multi-pronged and all-pervasive. It is not siloed in any department within a company. It impacts a company’s external stakeholders through products and services just as much as it touches on the company’s internal stakeholders including employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique time — to put it mildly — characterized by many shifts in the modern workplace not the least of which was remote work. By making our home our remote workplace, employees across the world made a company’s culture a very personal thing. That, in conjunction with the social justice reawakening of 2020 inspired many employees to ask for more from their employers.

And, in large part, employers answered the call by engaging in IE&D initiatives at an unprecedented rate. However, IE&D is a journey rather than a destination. It is an ever-evolving conversation between employer and employee. Occasionally, there may be a wrong turn, but if the stakeholders continue to learn and grow, the journey continues and that’s a win.

RC: Of the 12 key focus areas, were there any that particularly came to mind as companies or employees assess their year-in-review and begin planning for 2023?

CJ: Any time employers start or expand their IE&D efforts — and the new year is always a good time for organizational planning — we recommend as a first step assessing where the organization stands.

The Playbook’s “Assess You Progress” card helps companies determine how best to measure progress across the organization. Beyond just looking critically at past IE&D programming and evaluating what has worked and where there may be opportunities to redirect efforts or deploy different strategies, this card also goes deeper into organizational self-assessment tools.

Workforce data analytics can help employers to identify where there may be gaps, prioritize areas for action, and provide an ongoing measurement of progress.

RC: How do you think IE&D is going to fare during the expected economic tumult of 2023?

AAD/CJ: We think IE&D is here to stay regardless of the economic climate, and companies that continue to invest in such programming in the year to come situate themselves to thrive. Indeed, IE&D programming is not a “nice-to-have,” but rather a “must have” for employers competing for investors, clients, and talent in the global marketplace where these stakeholders want to align themselves with organizations that reflect their values.

Thus, employers that built IE&D values into their DNA through the implementation of IE&D policies in their handbooks, legally compliant unconscious bias training, Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) reporting, and other avenues, shine more brightly in such comparisons. Employers that relinquish IE&D when they are faced with the possibility of an economic downturn do themselves a disservice.

Specifically, they fail to account for the competitive value that IE&D brings their organization in facing economic head winds by building customer and employee loyalty and fostering a culture that is recession-proof.

RC: Where do you recommend an employers at the beginning of their IE&D journey begin in the Playbook?

AAD: The best part about IE&D is that it is not a prescription. There is no one-size-fits-all IE&D program or initiative. For this reason, we created a nonlinear app that allows employers to explore any of 12 general conceptual areas within the IE&D space.

Any employer at the beginning of its IE&D journey — whether that be a startup or a mature employer — can choose where they want to implement change within the employment lifecycle.

However, anecdotally, many employers choose one of two routes. Some are more introspective and conduct a self-analysis of their IE&D data — preferably under privilege — to determine where they want to allocate their capital resources. These employers allow the data to dictate the priorities and timeline for the same. To achieve this end, an employer might begin by exploring the “Analyze the Numbers” card within the Playbook. But data analytics can include legal risk and be expensive. Therefore, other employers may seek to achieve IE&D success by building equity in their existing reality by updating policies, procedures, and training. These employers may do well to delve into the “Legal Implications,” “Program Development” and “Retention” cards.

But no matter which avenue an employer chooses, I encourage all employers to review the “Organizational Buy In” card. Whether it is building buy in from the C-suite or from rank-and-file employees, IE&D is a team effort. And it can only find lasting success where employers motivate all aspects of their workforce to pull towards the same end goal.

RC: Peter Drucker famously quipped “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, a good culture can be a force multiplier for better company performance. How do you feel about this statement?

CJ: While planning and strategy always serve an important purpose, organizational culture is key for promoting employee engagement, increasing resilience and productivity, and strengthening reputation and brand.

For employers, right now can feel like a turbulent time to do business — at the same time they are navigating an unprecedented competition for talent, they are bracing for a predicted economic downturn. But developing a strong culture — which will look different for different organizations but will necessarily include adapting principles of IE&D — can help companies drive business goals, improve talent acquisition, and increase retention.

RC: Thank you so much spending some time with us this week. Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?

AD:  We invite employers to explore the IE&D Playbook and send us their feedback. Whether you have a question about IE&D, or a suggestion about what you’d like to see in the next avatar of the Playbook, we want to hear from you.

CJ:  We developed this resource to help employers navigate the legal, practical, and business considerations surrounding IE&D. Nothing about this area is static — and as the space continues to evolve, so will the Playbook. We really hope it is a helpful tool for organizations regardless of where they are in their IE&D program development or implementation.

RC: On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, I would like to thank Alyesha Asghar Dotson and Corinn Jackson for sharing their stories as well as the IE&D Playbook with our audience. We wish them continued success in their careers.


Renwei Chung is the DEI Columnist at Above the Law. You can contact him by email at renwei@footnote4.com, follow him on Twitter (@renweichung), or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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