What Janet Dhillon, the new Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), loved most about serving as chief legal counsel three Fortune 500 companies was those days when she faced completely unexpected challenges. Can she give an example?
“Sure,” says Dhillon. “The day that US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River. I was General Counsel of US Airways. I was in a meeting with our chief pilot when he received a call from the Department of Transportation, telling us that ‘one of your planes is in the Hudson.’ So, my entire focus shifted. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates how no two days are alike when you serve as an in-house counsel.”
Pilot “Sully” Sullenberger won fame as a real-life hero for smoothly setting his aircraft down on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Behind the scenes, Dhillon and her team were focused the myriad legal ramifications of a crash landing with 155 people on board. Dhillon’s office worked with investigators, insurers, outside counsel and government officials.
“Serving as a corporate counsel is a fascinating job because no two days are alike,” says Dhillon. “You come into the office thinking, ‘Today, these are the list of things that I'm going t work on.’ And then something can happen in your organization and it completely reorders your priorities for the day.”
She warns that the lengthy confirmation process makes appointed positions less attractive to people, discouraging many from serving and hurting the overall quality of our government. But Dhillon herself never considered throwing in the towel. “This was something I really wanted to do,” she says. “And there was a certain point at which I just got stubborn about it.”
Speaking of the challenge of unexpected turbulence, there was Dhillon’s long drawn out confirmation for the EEOC chairmanship. President Donald Trump nominated Dhillon in June of 2017. It took almost two years for Dhillon to be confirmed by the Senate in May 2019, by a 50 to 43, party-line vote.
The cause for the delay was complicated and had nothing to do with Dhillon’s credentials, which were indisputably stellar. Rather, Dhillon’s appointment became wrapped up in debate about the entire political makeup of the EEOC. The EEOC even lacked the required quorum to do business for a time before Dhillon’s confirmation.
“The confirmation process has gotten incredibly difficult,” says Dhillon. “And the backlog of nominees is very long. It's a problem. The President was elected. We all understand there are people who don't like the outcome of the election. at. But he was elected and is entitled to have his selection of people in the government to carry out his agenda (subject, of course, to the reasonable exercise of the Senate’s advice and consent function). And then the American people can decide if they do or don't like that and make their decision in 2020. I think that the nomination and confirmation process, has just gotten out of hand. It's been weaponized and that is very unfortunate.”
She warns that the lengthy confirmation process makes appointed positions less attractive to people, discouraging good people from serving. But Dhillon herself is nonetheless excited about her role, notwithstanding the delays. “This has been something I really wanted to do,” she says. “And there was a certain point [during the confirmation process] where I just got stubborn about it. Now, I am thrilled about the job. I've now been here a little less than four months, and I'm really enjoying it. It's a terrific agency. I'm glad I'm here. I just wish I could have gotten here a lot sooner.”
Dhillon grew up in Orange County, Ca., the daughter of two public school teachers, Robert Wilcox, who had enjoyed a successful career in the Merchant Marines and U.S. Navy before becoming a teacher, and Patricia Wilcox. Janet Wilcox attended Occidental College, where she majored in history and graduated magna cum laude. “I've always been a history buff,” she says. “Just a few weeks ago I met Doris Kearns Goodwin who spoke at an EEOC event. It was a thrill to meet her, because I have such respect for her work.”
Dallas’ D Magazine hailed Dhillon as one of “the best corporate lawyers in North Texas,” and quoted advice she gave to her staff during the Penny reorganization: “At the height of the craziness I said, ‘You know, you don’t have to read everything that is written about us.’ Some days it seemed constant and relentless.”
Although she studied history, Dhillon admitted to a secret past ambition to be a novelist. “Oh, I think I would write mystery stories,” she says. “I think it would be fun to figure out the plot and try to bring a reader along in a story, dropping clues along the way.” Her current favorite is Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, whose hero is Armand Gamache, a police inspector in Quebec. “These books are an escape for me. She writes beautifully; I highly recommend her books,” Dhillon says.
After Occidental, she met Uttam Dhillon, then a student at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. They married in 1985. “He finished law school and I worked,” she says. “And then I went to law school and he supported me. So, for the first six years of our married life, one of us was in law school for five of those years. Suffice it to say that we did not live a normal life.”
When it came her turn, Janet chose UCLA School of Law, where she graduated first in her class and was awarded the Order of the Coif. Uttam Dhillon is a former Deputy White House Counsel and today acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
After law school, Dhillon joined the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where she practiced law for thirteen years. She later served as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Burlington Stores, Inc., and then Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of JC Penney Company, Inc. She was General Counsel to JC Penney at a trying time. Dallas’s D Magazine hailed Dhillon as one of “the best corporate lawyers in North Texas,” and quoted advice she gave to her staff during the difficult times: “At the height of the craziness I said, ‘You know, you don’t have to read everything that is written about us.’ Some days it seemed constant and relentless.”
Dhillon believes that the EEOC could use litigation more judiciously. “While litigation has a place in enforcing the civil rights laws, and it's an important tool in our toolbox,” she says, “I do think that if the EEOC can step in early and help to remediate a discriminatory employment practice early and get the employer back on the right track, and ensure that the person who was wronged gets the appropriate amount of relief, it could reduce the number of lawsuits. And if you can settle these matters outside the court system, to me that's a win-win.”
As EEOC chair, Dhillon heads an agency set up to enforce federal laws against employment discrimination, but she wants the EEOC to use its power judiciously. “The EEOC has litigation authority by statute under a number of the civil rights laws,” she explains. “And litigation plays an important role in what we do; it is a tool in our toolbox. But the EEOC also has an obligation to attempt to conciliate disputes, and I take that obligation seriously. If the EEOC can step in early, before litigation, and help to remediate a discriminatory employment practice, get the employer on the right track, and ensure that the person who was wronged gets the appropriate amount of relief, it will reduce the number of lawsuits. To me that's a win-win.”
Dhillon approaches her role with a heavy dose of common sense:
“One thing we are working on is a review of guidance, FAQs, and other materials that this agency has issued over the decades. And we are asking, ‘Is this still necessary? Does it need to be updated? Should it be rescinded? Does it reflect current law?’ I think EEOC is like many other agencies – where people focus on promulgating new regulations and guidance, but rarely step back and say, ‘Do we need all the material that's out there? Is it still helpful?”
Dhillon also wants the EEOC to use its resources wisely: “In the past,” Dhillon says, “cases were brought by the EEOC on behalf of people who already had access to quality legal representation. My question is whether, if someone already has access to a good lawyer that he or she has chosen, is that a case that the EEOC ought to be filing? Or instead, should we be taking our resources and allocating them to someone else who may not have access to that kind of legal assistance? So that is something that I'm challenging the team think through.”
Dhillon, herself a pioneer in the corporate world, sees great value in women serving on corporate boards: “In my experience, female board members tend to be good listeners. I've watched women as they've joined boards, and my impression is that they don't feel the need to quickly make a big ‘splash.’ They are patient and willing to listen and ask questions. And because they are comfortable asking questions, they are willing to ask the hard questions. All of those traits make women valuable in the Board room.”
Dhillon also wants the EEOC to better prioritize: “Under the prior administration,” Dhillon says, “cases were brought by the EEOC on behalf of accountants and doctors. Not to say that there might not have been valid legal bases for those cases, but if someone already has access to quality legal representation, is that a case that the EEOC ought to be taking? Or instead, should we be taking those resources and allocating them to someone else who may not have access to that kind of legal assistance? So that is something that I'm challenging the team to work through and understand that.”
But Dhillon worries about quotas for women on boards. “The push to include more women on to corporate boards is a good one,” she says. “But I do worry about a ‘one size fits all’ approach to most corporate governance issues, including the appropriate composition of boards. Constructive interpersonal dynamics, collaboration, trust, and relevant subject matter expertise are all characteristics of strong, well-functioning boards. Female directors certainly possess those skills and attributes, and so are well-positioned to make strong contributions to the boards on which they serve. But I do not see a clear connection between gender quotas and the overall effectiveness of boards. In my experience, it is the board members themselves who are in the best position to determine who would be a good fit and a productive member.
Stepping back to her career before joining the EEOC, Dhillon is asked what advice she’d give a young woman who is considering entering the corporate world. “Oh, I think they should do it,” she says with gusto. “It's a lot of fun to work in the corporate sector. It is very rewarding, as a lawyer, to anticipate potential problems and proactively work to address them in such a way that they do not become a distraction to the business. There can be a lot of camaraderie in the corporate world, because everyone is focused on making the business successful. So, I absolutely encourage women to go into the corporate sector.”
With this kind of spirit, Janet Dhillon is just the right person to take on the challenges, expected and unexpected, of running an organization that has a profound effect on American workplaces.