From a Filipino-American community along the sandy beaches of Hawaii, to ivy-covered halls of Brown University on the East Coast, to a global roll-out of his growing legal department, Eric de los Santos, Assistant General Counsel, Director of Employment Law at TrueBlue Inc. has been planting the seeds of diversity and inclusion all along the way. His tremendous commitment to diversity in the profession will be recognized this October at the Association of Corporate Counsel Annual Meeting in Boston, where he is set to receive the coveted Matthew J Whitehead II Diversity Award, an award named after a visionary CLO who made diversity a core value of ACC membership, activities and leadership. Corporate Counsel Connect sat down with Eric to learn more about his professional career and extra-curricular activities.
Q: How does a nice, young Filipino kid from Hawaii find his way to Brown and eventually to law school at the University of Washington?
A: When I was a kid, I experienced something that made me feel disempowered. That feeling made such an impression on me; I really wanted to overcome that. It was a series of events and some real poignant moments. Part of it was seeing my parents struggle and unable to communicate with certain people—you know, to transact business or at the grocery store. Or at the hospital, trying to explain my symptoms when I was sick, because I had asthma. I wanted to help my parents get their message across; they are good people with good intentions.
And, I also recognized we all have a role to play to make things better. When you go to a school like Brown or the other things I was able to experience, you realize that it takes a community. And it just wasn't my parents, it was grandparents, family friends, teachers and a whole community that supported me; you have this feeling that you need to give back, so you try to do the best you can as a result.
I developed cultural agility—it's a great quality to have as an individual and especially as a lawyer. In the corporate context, you have to relate to so many different people. It really comes in handy.
Q: You wear a lot of hats at TrueBlue. You are not "just another employment lawyer." Tell me more about your different roles and your legal department.
A: I am the Assistant General Counsel, Director of Employment Law at TrueBlue. I manage a team of attorneys and paralegals who are advising the company in all labor and employment issues in the United States, and now, globally. It's a great place for an employment law attorney; the experiences and issues I get to face are never the same on any given day. It also requires that I get to be involved in lots of corporate initiatives at a high-level. For instance, government relations; if there's an issue, I can be part of the government strategy to resolve the issue.
As Equal Opportunity Officer, I'm responsible not only for EO compliance issues, but also for strategizing on the company's affirmative action plan. It goes hand in hand because I am the company's Diversity and Inclusion Chair. It's a big role in this company. We've moved the company to talk about diversity and inclusion in a way that's not threatening to anyone; it's just part of our culture. We've moved toward more programming to become a more diverse and inclusive company; folks are committed, and it's not just people of color, or women, or LGBT—we are talking about a whole company engaged in a conversation about diversity, and inclusion, and recognizing that we all have a role to play.
So, our legal department is growing. We used to be four attorneys in our legal department, but now we have more than fifteen. I think we just put another request in for another attorneys; it's getting big.
Q: Wow, that's tremendous growth! So, with a growing department, does this require you to exercise different skills?
A: In my role, you definitely need to seek out attorneys with global experience. For my future hires, I'll look for attorneys who have experience practicing in Asia or Latin American countries. Advising on global issues has been one of the most challenging things I've had to deal with; there are logistical challenges, like timing and time zones. Luckily, through the ACC, I was able to strategize with attorneys with multi-jurisdictional practices around the globe, pick their brains and figure out what I need for a global employment advising team.
We've also acquired additional business models. [TrueBlue] just isn't just day labor anymore. We do placement services; we do outsourcing. People come to us if they are looking for permanent employees. The last statistic I heard was we put 100,000 people to work a day. And every 8 seconds someone gets a job through us.
Q: Any good pieces of advice for legal professions to promote diversity within their ranks?
A: Diversity shouldn't just be part of your department, diversity should be a goal throughout the company. And you should be able to directly align it with the values, mission and strategy of the company. It's a journey; you won't be diverse and inclusive in one-year's time. The true value of what you have created in your company and your department may not necessarily be calculable—you can't put a number to it. But it will have the most positive impact in creating stronger and successful teams.
Regarding partnerships [between law firms and companies], you want to work with organizations that align with your values regarding diversity and inclusion and who are committed to doing the same.
Q. You are active and hold leadership roles in several organizations. Tell me about these organizations and the role they've played in your professional development.
A: I was a co-founder of the Filipino Lawyers of Washington (FLOW). Being one of the largest Asian, ethnic groups in the state of Washington, it was time for us to start an organization of Filipino lawyers. We needed to get a group together to focus on issues that were important to our community. For example, Filipino high school students have a high drop-out rate in Washington State; there's work for us to do. That's why FLOW committed to the "Year of the Student" and to address this issue. As a professional, this is the stuff that is important to me and makes me feel really satisfied as an attorney. This is an addition to the good work that I do at the company, but this other side of me needs to be fulfilled and FLOW to take care of that part.
What drew me initially to NAFALA (National Filipino American Lawyers Association) was the fact that although we are a growing population in the United States, we don't have too much representation in politics or in the judiciary. It was time to get a group of Filipino-American attorneys from across the country together to work towards those goals. I have to tell you, when we had our first meeting in NAPABA [in 2014], and there was 70 of us gathered in a room—all of these Filipino-attorneys—I so wished that my family could see the amount of intelligence and leadership contained in this room and reflected in faces that would be familiar to them. It took my breath away.
I'm not formally part of any LGBT associations, there's so much stuff for me to do. It's not taking a second seat-- I am a gay, Asian man. But the way that I deal with being gay is that I'm out at work and everyone I work with knows, and I don't have to worry about it, I can just continue with my work. Because I know for some LGBT attorneys, sometimes you struggle with whether to come out to colleagues or clients or bosses; if you have to worry about this, it can really detracts from your ability to focus on work.
Q: Here are some rapid-fire, quick-hit questions. If you weren't an attorney, what would you be?
A: [Silence. More silence]. You know, I don't know. I like doing so many different things, but I like the rigor of being an attorney. I feel like, ideally, I am in the role I was meant to be.
Q: What's the last great meal you cooked?
A: I have a garden and love to grow. I grow 20 different varieties of dahlias and lots of tomatoes. It's not what I ate, but I can my own vegetables. I had 25 pounds of tomatoes that I cooked and canned, and it only made 3 jars of tomato sauce! It took 8 hours! You have sterilize everything, you have wash the tomatoes really well, you need boil them, soak them, take the seeds out. It just evaporates. 25 pounds of tomatoes, eight hours of work and only three jars! But I love gardening.
There's a word that my step-mom uses to describe me: "paki'do, paki'la." It's like the man who goes to church in his best clothes and, after church, he walks straight into the field and starts to plow. In fact, I use this picture of me in my suit watering my garden when I talk about diversity and inclusion to the company. I say, "Diversity is like a garden full of plants. Diversity is all the different plants. But, inclusion is the environment to allow each of these plants to grow—each plant is different and requires different light, soil, water, attention, pruning. We are trying to build this vibrant garden and inclusion is finding the right elements so that all the plants can grow together and be strong."