President & CEO, SHRM
Hometown: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
- JD, Drake University Law, 1992
- MA, Drake University, 1991
- BS, University of Miami, 1989
- President and CEO, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 2010-2017
- Group chief executive officer, IAC, 2007-2009
- Partner and president of HR Consulting Group, McGuireWoods LLP, 2004-2005
- Executive vice president, general counsel, Compass Group North America, 2002-2004
- General counsel and senior vice president of human resources, Paramount Live Entertainment Group, Paramount Pictures, 1998-2002
- Vice president of human resources, North America, Blockbuster, 1994-1997
Johnny C. Taylor Jr. has forged a unique path to the heights of government affairs. Like many of his peers, he began as an attorney. But unlike most of them, he pivoted to human resources. That move ultimately led him to the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there a watershed moment that you feel was a defining point in your career?
I’m trained as a lawyer, and I’m a practicing labor-employment lawyer. And without going into all of the details, I essentially realized one day—and I remember the day so vividly—I was investigating a sexual-harassment case and deciding how we’re going to defend it, and ultimately I realized that it was indefensible. I’m fairly aggressive, and I found myself digging in to find a way to justify what had occurred to this woman, or—you know, I’m a zealous advocate. That’s the phrase we use. And that’s my job. And ultimately, I sort of had that
moment, that literally “Aha!” moment where I said, “My creativity, my tenacity, my smarts—they’re all being used after the fact, when there’s an opportunity, if I were to get out of the law department and into the HR department, to actually prevent this behavior.”
At that time, I was in-house for Blockbuster Entertainment. And I just realized, if you keep saying [people] are your most important asset, then as opposed to fighting that asset when they bring to you concerns about something, about being subjected to illegal treatment in the workplace, couldn’t you use all of your gifts for the good, to … prevent a lot of these cases and be more proactive instead of reactive? I can get in the front of this and save the company a lot of aggravation and money and bad PR. But more importantly, I can do my part inside to ensure that people have a good shot at life and equal opportunity and professional ratification, etc.
And I was named the vice president of HR about a year later.
What were some of the things that you wanted to change?
Most of the cases on my docket were mistakes made by managers who simply did not understand the law. They didn’t understand what the limitations were. Secondly, they had not been prepared to be people managers. … We’ve spent a lot of time teaching people the technical part of the job—i.e., how to shut it down, how to open the cash receipts, how to do this. What we didn’t focus on was the people side, the human side, and we were ultimately a human business.
What are some of the big policy issues important to you, especially in the field of HR? It’s both kind of unique and a niche field, but also probably has a lot of different policy implications to it.
They call it “niche,” but in some ways—with the exception of trust-fund babies, you always have to work, right? I’ll just read like three that are top of mind for me. One is, we wrestled through paid leave. You know, that’s a big policy issue [especially in light of the coronavirus]. And I understand that paying for it, because we already have the [Family and Medical Leave Act] for people who have health conditions or families with health conditions, etc.—that was phase one. But what we realized is you give people up to 12 weeks off with no pay, that means I’m not going to be paid before I can feed my children. Then I’m just going to come to work, and in the process infect other people, which means … one person coming to work could result in your entire business being shut down, because all of us get it.
No. 2, from a policy standpoint, we’ve got to figure out immigration. And I’m talking work-related immigration. The birth rate is low [for] millennials. … They’re not replenishing the workforce. And it may not manifest itself today. You advance that a decade, two decades from now, and you have a real problem. On top of that, what we’ve all known is [there’s] a skills gap, and … you run out of [qualified] people, especially in a knowledge-based economy.
[Finally], how to figure out how to achieve inclusion of what is increasingly a more diverse area? How can you manage a multigenerational, multi-ethnic [workplace]? This is going to be hard. And we’ve got to figure out, from a public-policy standpoint, how to ensure as a country that every person feels included … and prepared to come into the workforce and to feel included. … I have this phrase … “the browning and graying of America.”
How have the events of this year and the calls for racial justice affected you personally?
I had never seen what we saw—specifically George Floyd—I had never seen another human being, Black or white or whatever, do something so vicious. And they’re screaming for help. I heard about it; I was like, “Oh, come on. That’s an exaggeration. You did not lay on someone’s neck for eight minutes. That just didn’t happen. Right?” Well, no, it was real. It didn’t land on me as a racial issue. It landed on me as someone who does not value life. You’re pretty damn cruel to do that to another human being. …
You know, every three to five years, the country literally goes up in flames over racial issues, and I sadly almost became kind of numb to it. This time, there was something palpably different. It wasn’t just another case. The best way I can analogize this is to Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights Movement, that moment—this whole new fresh approach to civil rights and urgency about it.
I’ve seen things be a fad. I’ve seen them be translated into movements and literally disappear as quickly as they came. I remembered walking on Capitol Hill and walking past the park and seeing—literally, people have just taken it over. And I was like, “Wow, this might be that moment.” And it was. This BLM movement is so loosely organized, much like Occupy [Wall Street]; its looseness could lead to its effectiveness.
You are the head of one of the largest trade associations in the country; you interact with a lot of people in government affairs. Is it a diverse industry? Or does the industry itself need to do more to promote diversity?
My concern is that the government-affairs and policymaking world tends to take Black people [and] put them on “Black issues,” as opposed to giving them the ability to lobby for tech issues, or you name it. They’re brought in because [of a] Black perspective. And that that is troubling to me more than anything else. Yes, you will have presumably a little bit more of an understanding and perspective on issues that directly impact the Black community. But if Apple brings in, for example, a Black governmental-affairs professional and has them only working on things that they think impacted my community, that is heartbreaking, and it would lead into why, if you have underrepresentation, you have it because most of Apple’s issues as a major employer are not tied to one community.
I think that’s a problem. And that will lead one to say, sure, you’ve got 10 percent of the government-affairs professionals in this town [that] are Black—the population is 12 percent, roughly in line with it. But if all those folks are working exclusively on Black issues, then you truly do have an underrepresentation issue in the rest of the space.
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