The CEO of the world’s largest HR organization hobnobs with Trump and led a $20 million turnaround. Meet Johnny C. Taylor Jr., an industry visionary who insiders say embraces layoffs and told staff that fear of COVID-19 is not a ‘legitimate reason’ for working remotely.

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Johnny C. Taylor Jr. is the CEO of SHRM, the largest HR organization.

Courtesy of SHRM; Yuqing Liu/Business Insider


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  • The Society for Human Resource Management is the largest HR organization. Johnny C. Taylor Jr. became CEO of SHRM in December 2017.
  • Taylor has turned SHRM around financially. In 2016, SHRM took a loss of $5.6 million. In 2018, net income (total revenue minus total expenses) was $14.1 million. Taylor has also conducted multiple rounds of layoffs at SHRM.
  • Taylor speaks often about SHRM’s unique — and confrontational — company culture and says that anyone who doesn’t feel it suits them should consider working elsewhere. Many of the former employees that Business Insider spoke with used the word “fear” to describe SHRM’s culture.
  • Former SHRM employees also said they felt pressured to return to the office during the coronavirus pandemic. Also in July, management learned that an employee who had been in the office tested positive for COVID-19. They informed staff about the diagnosis the following day.
  • In a statement emailed to Business Insider, SHRM said, “Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, was brought into SHRM to boldly transform and elevate the organization because of market demand on the HR profession to change. It was Taylor’s mission to change strategy and, as necessary, the talent that drives that strategy.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On February 1, 2018, employees of the Society for Human Resource Management convened for an all-staff meeting at a hotel near headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Some staffers were flown in from other parts of the country. The new CEO, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., treated employees to lunch and handed out SHRM-branded T-shirts.

Later that afternoon, former staff recalled, about two dozen employees were called individually into meetings with their division chiefs. It was their last day at SHRM, they learned. SHRM staff escorted them off the premises, where IT representatives wiped company email accounts off their phones. They got into their cars and drove home. Some were still wearing their celebratory SHRM T-shirts.

About 300,000 human-resources professionals are members of SHRM, where they get compliance resources, industry news, and support from a network of HR professionals. (An annual membership costs between $109 and $219.) Members from 90-plus countries attended its 2019 conference.

SHRM, which has more than 400 employees globally, champions fairness and inclusion. Its tagline is “Better workplaces. Better world.” The organization strives to make HR seen as a critical business function, rather than a sleepy but necessary corner of corporate America.

Since the arrival of Taylor in December 2017, the organization has gone into overdrive, with net income increasing nearly fivefold in one year and multiple rounds of layoffs. Taylor said he’s helped build a “challenge culture” in which employees are encouraged to speak up if they don’t like the way something is done.

Business Insider spoke with 12 former SHRM employees, seven of whom left recently. All sources spoke on condition of anonymity, either because they had signed nondisclosure agreements when they left or for fear of retaliation from the organization.

Nearly every single one used the word “fear” to describe how they felt working there.

Many of the former employees who spoke with Business Insider said they feared for their job security in the event that SHRM decided to conduct another round of layoffs or outsource their division. Former employees said they would often joke with their colleagues before leaving the office on Friday, “I hope I see you next week!”

“Given the urgent need for change,” SHRM said in an email to Business Insider, “employees were assessed, and it was determined that some did not perform at the expected level. It is understandable that an employee may be in ‘fear’ of losing their job if they recognized or sensed a performance gap and would be potentially at risk.”

The former employees said they were wary of speaking out about company policies or practices that concerned them. And employees who recently left the company said that they feared for their personal health during the coronavirus pandemic and felt pressured to return to the office. In July, SHRM division chiefs informed staff, many of whom had returned to the office, that an employee who had been in the office had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Management said it had no plans to close the office or send people home.

SHRM, the organization that’s a standard bearer for company culture, may have culture issues of its own.

‘Fire Half Your Staff’

At 52 years old, Taylor is a disarmingly charismatic executive. He talks often about his personal life: being a single dad with a young daughter (in a video, his daughter says she rates her love for her dad an 11 out of 10) and an African American man who’s experienced racial prejudice.

Meta Williams, who worked for Taylor when he was the president and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund between 2016 and 2017, called him a “visionary leader.” Taylor set high expectations for employees, Williams said, and was able to identify and develop each person’s unique strengths.

At SHRM’s 2018 conference in Chicago, he told a story about his mother, who was in attendance. As a kid, Taylor said, he’d complained to his mother that his classmates were talking about him. She told him he needed to worry only when peoplestoppedtalking about him.

SHRM is at the center of HR, and Taylor has quickly become the face of SHRM.



Screenshot/Amazon


He appears in SHRM advertisements, headlines SHRM conferences, and authors a weekly “Ask HR” column for USA Today. Topics include drug tests, inappropriate comments at holiday parties, and whether you are ever too old to start an internship.

He’s reshaped SHRM’s leadership. Roughly half of the executives listed on SHRM’s 2017 tax filing — Taylor joined in December that year — are no longer with the organization. (On average, when an outsider becomes CEO, one-third of the executive team leaves or is let go.)

And he’s whipped SHRM into financial shape.

In 2015 the organization took a loss of $7.5 million; in 2016 it took a loss of $5.6 million. In 2017 SHRM’s net income (its total revenue minus its total expenses) was $3 million, according to its public tax filings. In 2018, the first full year Taylor was CEO, SHRM’s net income was $14.1 million. (SHRM is funded largely by membership dues. It collected $52 million in 2018, according to its most recent publicly available tax filing.)

The bulk of this increase has come from program service revenue, which in the nonprofit field usually includes fees for conferences and certification programs. And while head count went up during the first year of Taylor’s tenure, salary costs were slashed.

The layoffs that took place in February 2018 have been followed by additional rounds of job cuts. In 2019 the entire customer-service division was outsourced, according to former employees, and the internal staff was dismissed. Since March of this year, according to former staff, roughly a dozen SHRM employees have been let go. SHRM declined to confirm how many employees had been let go at any point since Taylor’s arrival.

Taylor was recently in talks with Harper Business to publish a book — listed on Amazon and Goodreads under the title “Fire Half Your Staff: Then Hire & Keep the Talent You Need” — which argues for getting rid of disengaged employees who cost companies nearly $12 billion annually, according to the description on Google Books.

On July 17, SHRM tweeted that neither SHRM nor Taylor would publish a book under that title.

“Plans for a book from Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., were in discussion in 2019 and formally halted in Q1’20,” SHRM wrote. “This is not the title, nor even the spirit, of that body of work.”

Taylor told Business Insider that “Fire Half Your Staff” was one of a number of titles he was considering, and he never officially approved it.

A challenge culture

Former employees said they remembered management saying employees could approach them with any questions or concerns. Taylor told Business Insider that SHRM actively encourages dialogue between bosses and their teams. People who “don’t like to confront issues” won’t thrive there, Taylor said.

One former employee described the company holiday party in 2019, where friends and family were present. This person said that in Taylor’s remarks to attendees, he mentioned any employee who didn’t mesh with SHRM’s culture was free to leave the organization.

Taylor told Business Insider he preferred the term “alignment” over “culture fit.” If someone feels they don’t align with SHRM’s culture, or vice versa, that’s OK by him. “If you’re going to be in a place eight, 10, 12 hours a day,” he said, “you’ve got to make sure you’re not miserable during that entire period of time.”

Earlier this year, HR professionals criticized SHRM, saying it had a lacking response to the killing of George Floyd and racism against Black Americans. Some people said they see SHRM’s leadership as too cozy with the Trump administration: Taylor chairs President Donald Trump’s board of advisers on historically Black colleges and universities, and he’s partnered with Trump on a national workforce-training initiative.

A spokesperson for SHRM, Cooper Nye, previously told Business Insider that SHRM was focused on “policy, not politics.” Nye added that SHRM leadership must show up to forums where workplace issues are being discussed.

SHRM recently announced an initiative called “Together Forward @Work,” directed at rooting out racial inequity in US workplaces. As part of the initiative, SHRM released a report on race at work; one key finding is that many people feel uncomfortable about — and even discouraged from — discussing race in the workplace. To avoid that at SHRM, Taylor said he keeps an “open door” for employees who want to share their concerns.

Yet the former employees we spoke with said that team members tend to be wary of actually disagreeing with edicts from upper management. One person said there was a lot of pressure not to speak up.

A former employee, whose manager asked them to resign, said that resignation conversation came after they had raised concerns to the company, including about SHRM’s attitude toward civil rights and diversity, equity, and inclusion. SHRM denied that employee’s claim.

A hard line on COVID-19 

SHRM has flexible policies around paid time off, working from home, and parental leave. But one former employee said it was hard to find out how those policies worked, and managers would encourage their teams to work in the office versus remotely.

And even before the coronavirus crisis, another former employee said, people were afraid to take time off when they weren’t feeling well. This person said they remembered their coworkers walking around the office coughing and sneezing and everyone else worrying that they’d get sick.

SHRM said in an email that Taylor “has been clear and consistent in his communications with employees, specifically stating that were a person unwell, they should absolutely, and with no questions asked, stay home from work — even if it might only be a common cold or the flu.” SHRM added that employees never mentioned feeling pressured to come to work while sick in any of SHRM’s anonymous communication channels. 

When COVID-19 hit the US, SHRM sent employees home in mid-March.

In several virtual staff meetings that followed, between March and May, Taylor told SHRM employees that they would be expected to come back into the office soon, unless they had a “legitimate reason” not to, former employees said. Staff began arriving in shifts starting June 1, three days after Virginia allowed some businesses to reopen, and most people were back in the office on June 15.

Former employees said they remembered Taylor telling staff that fear was not a valid reason for working remotely. A person who was present at these meetings said SHRM wanted to be the leader in returning to the office after lockdowns.

Taylor has addressed similar concerns in his “Ask HR” column for USA Today. In a May column, Taylor told an anonymous worker who was worried about going back to the office during the pandemic that “your employer has a right to demand its work be done in the office. A generalized fear of COVID-19 leading you to want to continue working remotely is not enough to protect your job.” (Taylor’s advice was based on guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and not his personal opinion, SHRM said in an email.) 

A former employee said colleagues were asked to provide doctor’s notes to explain why they wanted to continue working remotely. Another former employee said they were asked continually, after providing a doctor’s note, whether they had a legitimate health issue that would prevent them from coming into the office. SHRM said in an email that the company never required employees to provide doctor’s notes, and that if the alleged incident involving questions over a legitimate health issue did occur, “leadership was not advised.”

Then, at noon on July 23, division chiefs addressed their employees in Webex meetings and read from a script, former employees said. Many employees were already back in the office and watched from their desks. A SHRM employee who had been in the office had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the division chiefs said. Management had been informed the day prior.

Management said it had no plans to close the office or send people home.

The following week, former employees recalled, SHRM’s chief human-resources officer told the staff that the area where the infected employee was sitting had been deeply cleaned. According to preliminary contact tracing, some people that the employee had interacted with had tested negative for the coronavirus.

SHRM said in an email that it handled the COVID-19 case “with utmost care for the affected individual’s privacy while being as transparent as possible with staff.” SHRM added that it followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OSHA, and Virginia’s new emergency temporary standards.

In a June column, Taylor fielded a question about whether an employer could be sued if the workplace reopened and an employee subsequently contracted coronavirus.

“I have a short, simple answer,” Taylor wrote. “Yes, you could be sued.”

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