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Michael Johnson says he faces disrespect, 'hostile work environment' in new Cincinnati role

Michael Johnson says he faces disrespect, 'hostile work environment' in new Cincinnati role


Michael Johnson, with United Way of Greater Cincinnati, speaks during the Cap Times Idea Fest at the Wisconsin Historical Society in September.

This May, influential community leader Michael Johnson announced he was leaving his position as president and CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to take his “dream job” as CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

It may not be such a dream job after all. According to recent news reports, Johnson sent an email to the UWGC board of directors last week with complaints of a “hostile work environment.” He is now on leave. 

"I have worked with 10 board presidents in three different states, receiving outstanding reviews. I've been a successful nonprofit leader for more than 20 years," Johnson wrote. "I have never been micromanaged and disrespected the way I am being now. I have communicated my concerns in writing. I've tried to communicate my concerns to the others in a careful manner, but to no avail. I have no other choice but to raise this issue with the full board, as I have received subtle threats from the Board Chair."

“If I am staying, I need to be able to act as the President and CEO,” he wrote.

An interim CEO has been appointed to fill in during Johnson’s absence.

"Michael Johnson is still employed with United Way and has asked the United Way Board leadership for the ability to spend some time away from the office with his family," UWGC said in a statement.

In the email, Johnson specifically called out board chair Julia Poston for making “subtle threats” that she could fire him, said she “blatantly disrespected and attacked my character” and interfered with his work. At one point, Johnson wrote, she “told me I was nothing more than an angry man and referred to me as a boxer in a ring.”

At the Cap Times Idea Fest in September, Johnson outlined some of the challenges of working in Madison. He said he saw some of those same challenges in Cincinnati, but the power of the business community and a $60 million budget enabled him to tackle disparities on a systematic level.

But in his email to the board, Johnson said he was not informed about the full financial situation at UWGC. UWGC recently told over 140 nonprofits to expect cuts in funding because of a fundraising campaign shortfall.

"I did not know that this United Way had such financial and structural challenges when I took the job, or that I would have to cut so many jobs to correct these problems," he wrote.

Johnson came to the BGCDC in 2010, and has been credited with transforming the organization. The operating budget grew by 318 percent since his arrival.

In Madison, Johnson was frequently in the public eye. He previously acknowledged he had his “fair share of public fights,” saying they were always about advocating for “those that live in challenging circumstances.” One example was his public back-and-forth with the mayor of Fitchburg after funding for the BGCDC was cut; Johnson ended up raising private money to fill the funding gap for the BGCDC.

After Johnson’s email, Poston and future chair Tim Elsbrock wrote an email to the board that said "we and several other members of the Executive Committee have been discussing certain performance issues with Michael" and "did not expect such a response from Michael." Johnson replied that those “issues” were only discussed after his original letter, according to WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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