Gráinne Gleeson: how LinkedIn treats its employees the right way
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Gráinne Gleeson
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer. I actually didn’t decide on pursuing a legal career until my third year in college, but by then I knew, quite specifically, that I wanted to be an employment lawyer,” says Gráinne Gleeson, head of international employment law for EMEA, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific at LinkedIn. “Being people-focused, employment law, for me, feels more meaningful than other areas of the law. It allows you to dig more deeply into understanding how both people and companies work and is always interesting – there's almost always a curious story behind every case/query.”

Following the completion of her undergraduate degree in law and business at University College Dublin, and a Masters in Law at Trinity College Dublin, Gleeson qualified as a solicitor at Dublin-based LK Shields in 2008 before joining Mason Hayes & Curran, spending four-and-a-half years at Ireland’s largest employment law practice. Wanting to broaden her legal experience and enhance her career prospects further, Gleeson set her sights on a move to London in 2012. “As an Irish-qualified lawyer, it was challenging to get an equivalent role in a UK firm with many firms at the time suggesting that I might need to begin a few rungs lower down the ladder until I gained UK experience,” she recalls.

Nevertheless, Gleeson landed on her feet, when she accepted a role at one of the UK’s premier employment law firms, Lewis Silkin, which was keen to take advantage of her connections across the Irish Sea. “I was brought in to perform a dual role which involved advising on UK employment law but primarily building an Irish desk from scratch providing Irish employment law advice to UK companies,” she says. “The first year involved a huge amount of networking, relationship building, and everything that goes with that. Thankfully our efforts paid off and the Irish desk became very busy, culminating in the need to recruit another lawyer to support. Over time the Irish desk became an Irish and UK desk – with my clients needing complementary UK and Irish advice – before then evolving into an international desk.”

Gleeson credits her two-and-a-half years at the top-tier firm for preparing her for a more internationally focused role within LinkedIn; an opportunity that came knocking when she was facing a crossroads in her career. “After being a senior associate for a couple of years, I had to decide whether to push for partnership or to take a different path,” she explains.

Gleeson had had no prior dealings with LinkedIn; she was approached by the social media network’s legal team following a recommendation from a mutual contact (how very LinkedIn!). Already a big fan of the networking platform, working as an employment lawyer at LinkedIn was a dream come true, says Gleeson. “In Ireland, while at Mason Hayes & Curran, I was doing a lot of business development and networking through LinkedIn and I took the initiative to ensure that everybody in my department had a LinkedIn profile and understood how to use the platform for networking purposes. Then, when I moved to Lewis Silkin, given business development was such a large part of my role, I used it every day. LinkedIn’s mission and priorities were also very inspiring to me. Its mission is to connect every member of the global workforce with economic opportunity and talent is its number one operating priority. So, for an employment lawyer, the fact that the workforce is at the core of everything LinkedIn does, was very attractive.”

Attractive, to be sure, but does that mission statement place added pressure on LinkedIn’s employment lawyers to ensure the company never deviates from the straight and narrow? “It’s funny because rather than looking at it as pressure, it makes the job more enjoyable because these principles align with my own. LinkedIn really stands behind what it says and it treats its employees the right way: with compassion and trust. While we don’t always get it right – no company does – LinkedIn has a strong moral compass and it is not all about the bottom line. That really aligns with my own values and both drew me to the company and continues to motivate me on a day-to-day basis.”

Scaling up

Having returned to Dublin in 2014, Gleeson has now been at the world’s largest social media network for professionals for almost seven years. During that time, she has climbed the in-house legal ladder from senior employment counsel to head of the EMEA team two-and-a-half years later; she added Latin America to her portfolio in 2018 before being promoted to head of international employment law in January 2021 when Asia-Pacific was added to her remit and then elevated to senior director in Sept 2021. As head of international employment law, Gleeson is effectively responsible for the employment law issues affecting 40% of LinkedIn’s global workforce of more than 16,000 full-time employees spread across 33 offices worldwide.

And yet, despite the size of the network’s workforce, LinkedIn’s employment counsel team is small, to say the least. “Collectively for International, including myself, we are a team of two based out of Dublin, and a contractor in Asia-Pacific. The global team is led from the US where we currently have two lawyers and one programme manager,” explains Gleeson. “So, as a very small – but fierce – employment team, we have to be very inventive in how we scale our legal support, which largely focuses on how we can empower our highly skilled HR team.”

The solution to Gleeson’s scaling dilemma was solved through the creation of an online portal using a tool called HighQ, which enables LinkedIn’s international HR function to send low-risk, low-impact queries through the portal to the platform’s external counsel – Lewis Silkin. “I’m really proud of the work we did on this,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the most glamorous work in the world, but I feel like we achieved the impossible and rolled out a paradigm-shifting portal that transforms the way we work and created an employment law support model which is completely scalable. Designing the portal was way out of my comfort zone and my team’s comfort zone, but we learned so much, especially on the change management and tech side. Initially, I hoped for acceptance, but the portal has been overwhelmingly embraced by the HR team, which has called it ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘transformational’. It certainly frees up my team to focus on where we add the most value – high-risk, high-impact matters, so it’s been incredibly effective in that sense. It also produces data so we’re able to see the patterns of queries coming through and we know when we need to take a closer look at an issue or build more templates, guidebooks or training to further empower the HR team.”

Speaking of external counsel, what does Gleeson think private practice lawyers can do to make the lives of their clients that much easier? “Ultimately, my advice is to do your best to walk in our shoes and think creatively both from an advisory perspective and with your value-adds,” she replies. “Obviously, the quality of the legal advice is hugely important and the more outside counsel understand their clients’ business, the more they’ll understand their priorities, appetite for risk and what they’re trying to achieve. This allows for more helpful tailored advice and strategic solutions. Separate to that, it’s the value add. Helping us with scale, for example, with workload challenges and with headcount restrictions, which I think most in-house employment counsel can relate to. By partnering with Lewis Silkin, we collectively came up with the advice portal. I didn’t come up with that by myself. That was the value add coming from Lewis Silkin, explaining what they had done for other clients, but ultimately creating something together that is completely bespoke and tailored to LinkedIn. They really walked in our shoes to help us solve a problem creatively.”

The future of work

So what does an average day look like for the head of international employment law at one of the world’s leading social media networks? “About 30% of my time is spent in the leadership and management space, which includes stakeholder engagement and supporting my team with their day-to-day work and escalations. Currently, given our focus this year on foundations and operations, I am spending another 20% of my time on scaling and empowerment initiatives. Probably 15 to 20% on high-impact projects, such as flexible working, diversity, the gender pay gap, and other compliance projects. And another 15% on employee relations issues. The balance then relates to escalations – the higher priority matters that come to me.”

No discussion with in-house counsel can last long without mention of the covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world of work and employment law. So, what have been Gleeson’s experience over the past 20-plus months? “Pre-pandemic, I was probably working two days at home and in the office the rest of the time. Essentially, hybrid working,” she says. “Working full-time from home was a change, but it wasn’t too drastic. The bigger challenge for me was losing childcare and the schools being closed. I have a wonderfully energetic five-year-old daughter, Roxi, who is the centre of my life but trying to work and parent during the various lock-downs was very challenging. LinkedIn was incredibly supportive to all its employees during this difficult time and introduced emergency family leave for those who needed time off to juggle work and childcare issues. For me, that involved working atypical hours. I would divide my day according to when I had childcare support. Both LinkedIn and my manager were awesome and provided me with complete flexibility on how I would manage my workload.”

It’s our role to flag risk and to support the business in making a call in relation to what is intelligent risk. We’re not here to scaremonger or to block the business – quite the opposite

While flexible working is undoubtedly seen as a positive development that is set to stay in many progressive workplaces, the fact that some workers may end up working longer hours is a concern many employers – and governments – need to be aware of lest it negatively affect employee wellbeing. LinkedIn’s willingness to listen to its workforce on these issues is, arguably, what sets it apart from some other employers. The platform’s CEO, Ryan Roslansky, recently revealed that the company will continue to embrace flexibility in the post-pandemic world by removing the expectation that its workers must be in the office 50% of the time.

“We trust each other to do our best work where it works best for us and our teams. We’ve learned every individual and every team works differently, so we’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all policy,” he announced on LinkedIn in late July 2021.

“LinkedIn has put in a huge effort to support employees with the mental health challenges that came with working from home during lockdowns,” says Gleeson, who is also a trained yoga instructor and mindfulness meditation teacher. “Many professionals have struggled with boundaries between work and personal life and are working longer hours where they are not shutting off and stepping away from their laptop. Employers have to really think about how they’re protecting their employees and leaning into that space is important. During the pandemic, LinkedIn asked very direct questions of our employees. We wanted to know how they were doing. What we heard were the struggles that everyone around the world were dealing with: how to juggle competing priorities; how to disconnect and protect boundaries between work and personal life; and how to manage the intensity of work that the pandemic brought to us.”

Following workforce feedback, LinkedIn was one of the first employers to announce a company-wide shutdown, a paid “rest-up” week off, no-meeting days, as well as half-day Fridays during the summer period.  “Our benefits team looked at the feedback and also noticed that some employees weren’t taking their annual leave. In lockdown, they couldn’t go anywhere, so they weren’t taking leave,” explains Gleeson. “So, in addition to encouraging everyone to take their leave, we had a complete shutdown. That meant even if you wanted to work, nobody was there to come back to your email. It was a way to ensure that recharging was actually happening.”

Despite its obvious benefits, Gleeson admits that listening to your workforce and implementing global policy changes can be a delicate legal balancing act. “There’s any number of examples where despite good intentions, it can be very challenging to implement some of the requests coming from the business. So you always have to balance competing interests,” she says. “Legal feeds in and supports the decision-making process, but ultimately we are rarely the one making the final decision. It’s our role to flag risk and to support the business in making a call in relation to what is intelligent risk. We’re not here to scaremonger or to block the business – quite the opposite. We’re a partner to the business and are here to facilitate, and help support our leaders to make well-rounded strategic decisions that take all the factors into account including employment law risk.”

Grasping the needle

One particularly prickly issue LinkedIn’s employment team is currently grasping is the company’s employee vaccination policy. “We are requiring vaccinations for workers to have on-site access to our offices in the US, which is a legal requirement in the US. Those who choose not to be vaccinated can continue to work from home explains Gleeson. “We’re currently considering rolling this out globally to protect the health and safety of our employees. This involves consideration of local government guidelines, vaccine supply and equity and of course from a legal perspective it’s incredibly challenging in some countries”.

With LinkedIn’s European operations headquartered in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland is a prime example of the challenges global employers face in implementing workplace vaccination policies. “The Irish Data Protection Commissioner has issued a clear statement that employers should not be collecting the vaccination data of its employees,” explains Gleeson. “The IDPC is heavily influenced by the government's safety protocol, which does not specify that confirming employees are vaccinated is recommended and without the government calling this out the IDPC’s position is unlikely to change. This is difficult for employers who want to do everything they can to protect the health and safety of their employees.”

Despite the company’s commitment to hybrid and remote-working options, a recent survey of LinkedIn’s workforce found that 87% of staff would still like to be in the office on occasion. This has led the platform to commit to continued investment in its workplaces for those times when its teams can come together safely. At a time when many other Silicon Valley tech giants are still debating the scope of their flexible working solutions, LinkedIn’s offer of choice may give it a competitive advantage in the war for talent that looks set to explode amid the so-called Great Resignation that has been predicted by market observers.

“Many tech and multinational companies, for example, offer these incredible office spaces, gym facilities, and free food. That’s a big draw for some. However, in today's world, many people want maximum flexibility and would prefer to work from home for the most part and so having wonderful office spaces or perks become less of a recruitment tool. Post-pandemic, companies need to think creatively about how to attract talent. It’s definitely something we’re conscious  of.” To answer this important question, LinkedIn has continued to think outside the box with its workplace benefits programmes, explains Gleeson, who highlights the company’s global fertility-at-work initiative, launched in 2015, as a game-changer more employers may consider following in the years ahead.

We’ve since rolled out significant financial support for individuals going through any sort of fertility assistance. That’s the human thing to do but it also obviously helps with staff retention and attraction

Globally, one-in-six couples experience fertility issues, according to the World Fertility Day initiative. LinkedIn’s own research from 2019 revealed that 51% of UK employees going through fertility struggles have taken time off work for medical reasons, but only 43% feel supported by their line manager. Almost one-in-five (17%) workers didn’t discuss their fertility issues with their employer due to fears it would hinder their career prospects. More than one-third (39%) of workers didn’t discuss their miscarriage with an employer, and one-in-four (19%) only did so reluctantly.

It is surprising that, in this context, LinkedIn remains one of the few large companies to offer its employees financial support for a variety of reproductive techniques, including egg freezing and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) up to $100,000 in the US (up to £21,000 for UK staff since 2019), as well as adoption and surrogacy assistance.

“As in any company with a demographic such as ours, many of our employees are going through challenging journeys to build a family,” remarks Gleeson. “We understand that fertility problems and miscarriages can be a taboo subject meaning sadly that many employees suffer in silence. In line with our culture of having open and honest conversations, some of our leaders and employees were brave enough to talk about their own challenging experiences to lift the perceived stigma and open up the conversation. Our managers also began to talk more openly about it to ensure our employees understood that their managers are there to support them, if needed. We’ve since rolled out significant financial support for individuals going through any sort of fertility assistance. The aim is to ease the financial burden and stress tied to that journey. That’s the human thing to do but it also obviously helps with staff retention and attraction.”

When it comes to attracting new talent, however, LinkedIn has another initiative aimed at helping long-term absentees returning to the job market, which will help the platform stand apart from its Silicon Valley competitors. “We were thinking about where we can find more highly skilled, high-performing individuals to attract to LinkedIn,” explains Gleeson. “We realised that parents and carers looking to re-enter the workforce are an untapped talent pool and an initiative was tailored to provide additional support on their journey. In many cases, returners were often high performers before taking a step back from their career and just need a confidence boost and personalised onboarding when they re-enter the workforce. This initiative’s benefits are not simply limited to finding new talent in a competitive market, but it also provides a real boost in terms of our diversity efforts.”

“An example would be someone who has been out of the workplace for some time, caring for children, and they might be apprehensive about how much office technology has moved on since they were last in work. For them, we would provide a different interview and onboarding experience to build back their confidence and make sure they feel welcome and supported at LinkedIn.”

No advice abyss

A recent Microsoft study found that 41% of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. Having extolled the virtues of an in-house career – and working at LinkedIn in particular, what advice would Gleeson provide to those thinking about moving in-house? “I guess the main advantage – and I suppose everyone leads with this – is not having to time record,” she laughs. “But what that really means is you have the freedom to truly invest yourself and do your best work where your skills and input are most needed.”

“Also, in private practice you have to be a chameleon, because one size does not fit all. But in-house – when you have a depth of understanding of your client’s business you can be much more commercial, pragmatic, and direct in your advice. I really enjoy knowing my client inside out; the company’s precedents and policies; the risk appetite; and personalities, sensitivities and priorities.

“It’s also really enjoyable seeing my advice come to fruition, as opposed to in private practice where it can often feel like your advice just goes into this abyss and you never hear about it again. By contrast, in-house, you are rolling up your sleeves on the higher risk issues and partnering with your stakeholders to achieve a common goal where employment law is just one of the considerations. There’s a level of satisfaction when you see an initiative through from beginning to end and are very much involved in building the strategy at each stage of that process.”

Drawing the interview to close, I ask what Gleeson most enjoys about working at LinkedIn? “That’s easy – the incredibly talented people I work with who are also great fun to be around. I have always loved the relationship side of being an employment lawyer and as one of LinkedIn’s values is ‘Relationships Matter’ we all take time to invest in building those relationships. From a practical perspective, the strength of your relationships as an employment lawyer can heavily influence your impact and ultimately supports building trust with your stakeholders and so it can actually be the key to your success. ”