Allison Despard: Why working at Honeywell is never boring
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Allison Despard
John van der Luit-Drummond, Editor

Asked what she enjoys most about working in-house for one of the world’s largest industrial conglomerates, Allison Despard is refreshingly blunt. “In private practice, you do some training with clients, you do some policy stuff, but, most of the time, clients come to you with massive problems and say, ‘I got sued. Fix it.’ But working in-house you really have the opportunity to avoid those problems. A lot of my time is spent working to avoid lawsuits before they begin.”

Despard grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – a farming community and popular tourist destination that is home to the world’s largest Amish settlement – in a family where law was a family business. “My grandfather and my two uncles were attorneys. I adored my grandfather and he would take me to court. I just thought he was the most amazing person and I wanted to be just like him. Despite not having any concept of what it meant, I must have been around five years old when I decided I was going to be an attorney.”

After graduating from Virginia’s William & Mary University with a BA in international relations in 1990, Despard attended Loyola University Chicago School of Law. However, becoming a specialist in employment and labour law was not among her career aspirations at that time. “In college, I wanted to save the world. I did environmental audits at school and I got an internship in DC at the Nuclear Information Resources Services – an anti-nuclear non-profit. A friend and I were bake sale ladies selling cakes to save the rainforest, and we started the Environmental Law Society. And so, I came out of law school very idealistic.”

After graduating from law school in 1993 – and a one-year stint clerking at the US District Court in Philadelphia – Despard joined Oppenheimer Wolf & Donnelly, a general litigation firm based in Chicago, as an associate. “I was mostly doing what I now know is insurance defence – who’s going to pay for environmental cleanups. There were all these technical terms, deposing of scientists, and I was just not interested. It was not at all what I thought it should be.”

Fatefully, among her caseload were two employment law disputes that grabbed her attention, but perhaps not in the way her firm expected. “I knew enough that I wasn’t fit to run these cases.” Recognising that she needed help, Despard hatched a plan: she would return to law school to audit classes on labour and employment law. “I soon realised that I wanted to work with people that knew all about this area of law.”

Set firmly on a new path, in 1997, Despard joined the Chicago office of labour and employment law giant Littler Mendelson. “The managing partner and I really hit it off and we did a bunch of trials together; I made partner early and got to try my own cases. I loved it.” However, despite enjoying the work – and the firm – Despard admits the “24/7 lifestyle” of private practice began to take its toll.

So, when a telecoms client, based in San Francisco, called looking for a new assistant general counsel, Despard jumped at the opportunity to move in-house. “I joined a startup, not really knowing what that would entail. It was really fun. The environment was fast-paced, and everybody was working crazy hours. Everybody did every job. I wasn’t advising people anymore – I was doing everything! And, I learned everything the hard way.”

After four years at the startup, Despard was ready for another move. In 2005, she joined Intel as a senior human resources attorney; a role that took her to Hong Kong and back before the company offered her a position in Costa Rica. “It just didn't seem the right fit for my family at the time. They wanted me on a local package, but I was the breadwinner.” Another change was needed and, in late 2010, Despard joined multinational conglomerate Honeywell. “We wanted to raise our family in Asia, so it seemed like a great opportunity. And the best part of it was nobody had my job before. So, I got to take my experience at Intel and say, ‘This is really how this job can add value to the region’. It ended up being a dream job.”

Human connection

Based in Shanghai as Honeywell’s new chief labour and employment counsel in Asia-Pacific (APAC), Despard threw herself into understanding local customs and traditions, and for good reason. “From the perspective of an American woman, I had my work cut out for me. There was a bit of resistance from some of the business clients, even some of the HR clients. It’s really important to find that connection with a person so they can trust you. I consider my role to be an advisor and if somebody’s not comfortable coming to me, trusting me with something, then Honeywell’s not getting the benefit of my advice in that situation. So, it’s really about making that human connection with the people I work with and them knowing that I’m here to help.”

With two junior employment counsel now supporting her, Despard is responsible for around 33,000 employees across all of Honeywell’s APAC operations. The “extremely lean” team must, therefore, leverage its relationship with the company’s HR teams. “We have some really top-notch HR folks that are very savvy. I have an internal employment law council where we have a representative from each country, usually a more senior HR person, who is very aware of local laws and regulations. We meet about four or five times a year to put together a training curriculum for HR. It gives the folks on the council exposure to how things are different outside their country and helps us leverage the best of what we do.”

A country-by-country playbook is another tool Despard utilises for internal training and succession planning. “The intent is to take all of the basics of the law. So, questions like, can I hire someone as a contingent or as a fixed-term employee? How do I manage them? How can I exit them? What are the ways I can divest? We pull all these questions into those playbooks, all of our outside counsel research, all of our experience with the different deals and different exits of employees. It’s a very limited audience that gets to see the playbook because, obviously, it contains quite a bit of confidential information. But, when somebody new comes into an APAC HR role, we have already compiled this wealth of information for them.”

By empowering Honeywell’s HR, Despard’s team can focus on more critical matters and provide bespoke processes for each jurisdiction. “Malaysia, for example, is fairly litigious because it’s super easy to file a claim. We saw a trend of that, so I suggested we have employees sign a release on their way out that said, ‘If you sue us, you have to pay back all the ex gratia we give you’. They’ve worked really well and we’re not spending as much time on lawsuits. We did have two people sue us after signing releases, but the day before the arbitration date, they withdrew their claims. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any cases since.”

Speaking of litigation, Despard has taken the unusual decision to run all China-based disputes in-house. “China is another pretty litigious society; it’s fairly difficult to terminate people. So, to keep litigation in-house is very uncommon, but I love it. I still do my own litigation because I want to understand all the issues. When you’re arguing your case in front of a judge or an arbitrator, you understand it in a different way than when you throw the file over the wall to outside counsel. It makes us do our internal job better. We’ve improved how we give our advice and how we gather documentation so that we can win. And we’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the company. It’s really a win-win.”

When she does instruct outside counsel, Despard is determined to get the best bang for her buck. Borrowing a practice from Intel, each year Despard conducts an evaluation with every law firm she spends more than $10,000 with annually. “We do a two-way scorecard. And I think it really varies from law firm to law firm. The value-add of having an employment law expert in-house, who’s already worked in a law firm, is that we know when we’re getting good advice, and can find the good local people the company should work with. It’s a really important component of the job and one of my main goals early on was to make sure we had the right outside counsel in all of our countries, and they continue to change.”

Covid challenges

Many Honeywell workers were on the frontline of the battle against covid-19. As the global crisis escalated, the corporation pivoted its industrial capabilities to mass-produce hand sanitiser in Muskegon, Michigan, and Seelze, Germany, while N95 masks were churned out of Smithfield, Rhode Island, Phoenix, Arizona, and Pune, India. In India, Honeywell turned its Bangalore R&D campus into a “health building”, providing improved air quality, enhanced security, and touchless technology so engineers could continue to access on-site laboratories.

Elsewhere, Honeywell developed an in-cabin cleaning solution that uses UV-C light to disinfect aircraft interiors, while the company’s technicians also created an alternative to glass vials. This innovation would eventually allow the pharmaceutical sector to package and distribute vaccines without the risk of vials breaking in transit. However, despite these and other developments, Honeywell was not left unscathed by the pandemic.

Like many companies, Honeywell had to make the tough choice to downsize its workforce. Although Honeywell’s US-based aerospace division was the hardest hit, there were also losses in Asia. An unenviable task at the best of times, letting people go was made all the worse during lockdown, explains Despard. “My cardinal rule is that you have to sit in front of the person, and make it a very respectful, very human experience. But during covid we had to do it over video. Just like everything else, we adapted and we were still able to have that personal, respectful conversation, and be able to have people exit smoothly. But we were worried about how that would go.”

Now, with lockdowns largely over and economies reopening, Despard and her colleagues are grappling with a new challenge: workforce vaccinations. “Are governments in Asia going to mandate vaccines like the US? If they’re not, are Honeywell’s clients going to mandate vaccines? If the client mandates it, then can we say to our workers, ‘You have to be vaccinated, too’? Then it gets to the point of are we going to mandate vaccines everywhere that we can? If people refuse to get a vaccine, how are we going to manage that? How can we figure out who is vaccinated? The question of religious exemptions is going to be the trickiest to deal with. But then there are also the people that have proven they can work effectively from home and don’t want to come back. How do you get people excited about coming back to the workplace?”

As in-house counsel in US multinationals know all too well, the logistics of teamwork across multiple jurisdictions – especially during covid – can be particularly challenging; especially for those APAC-based counsel whose days are ending when others are only just beginning. “I liken it to a marathon,” she says. “You can have sprints every now and then. But unless you have some balance, you’ll get chewed up really, really quickly.”

For Despard, responsibility for maintaining a healthy working environment rests equally on individual workers and their managers. “My hat’s off to my boss, Kevin Covert [deputy general counsel at Honeywell]. He lets us figure out how to get the work done. Personally, I will block out time for dinner and homework with my kids. If I take a call during that time, it’s going to be for something really important.”

On how she has coped during the pandemic, Despard says: “I’ve been working at home for years. And it gets old. I mean, 35% of my job used to be spent travelling. Since covid, my job has changed dramatically. We’ve pivoted and learned to use online tools. We’ve gotten much better at doing our jobs online. But the relationship part is still important – I need to know my clients, especially in jurisdictions where we have high turnover.”

Mentoring talent

When asked to identify her proudest career moment, Despard points to the development of her two proteges, Xiaojiao Ma and Zoe Zhang. “I’ve watched those two grow and become valued by the business. I had a part in that and I’m actually really proud of it. I’m proud of the collaborative environment that we have created as a team. I tell them that it’s not just what you do every day, it’s how you do it, and how you treat people with dignity and respect.”

Despard’s deep commitment to nurturing talent flows from her time at Intel. “My experience there taught me that it’s more important to have the personality and the mentality than it is the skillset. Frankly, and I hate to break it to everyone, but employment law isn’t rocket science. It’s very learnable. But to have the right work ethic?” – she pauses for a moment – “In some attorneys I have interviewed, at a higher level, I would find an elitism. They’re not willing to do certain things. But if you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves and do everything that’s asked of you, you’re not going to last long-term. We have a lot of work that we have to plough through. Being choosy about what you do means you’re not going to be a valued, collaborative team member.”

For those considering a move in-house, Despard has this advice: “The most important thing is to really have a beginner’s mind. In a law firm, you had a very specific, limited role as outside counsel. And now that you’re here, in many roles, the sky’s the limit. You can be a real partner to the business, but you’ve got to learn the business, and you have to be its partner. You can’t be somebody that says no all the time and you can’t hide behind the law because – to be perfectly honest – I probably practise law 5% of the day. The rest of the time, I’m practising common sense.”

With the pressure on in-house counsel more acute than ever, Despard is not a fan of the fake-it-till-you-make-it school of thought. “Don’t pretend that you know things. Just be really curious,” she says. “Learn everything you can. Learn about the business’ finances, which is something you’re not exposed to in a firm. But if you’re going to speak compellingly to a business person, you need to have facts, you need to have data, and you need to be able to speak to what they care about – not what you care about.”

Looking back on the twists and turns of her career, Despard says: “Before Honeywell, I never stayed with a job longer than five years, largely because I got bored. I want to learn. I want to try something different. But that has not been the case with Honeywell because we continually change and adjust our portfolio. There’s a lot of mergers and acquisitions; there’s a lot of repositioning; change from a more traditional manufacturing company into a software company. There’s just a ton of really interesting work that forces me to constantly learn. I also work with really smart people who are good at what they do. It’s exciting, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”