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United Way CEO Michael Johnson on leave after alleging 'subtle threats, 'hostile work environment'

Agency names interim CEO
Posted at 6:51 PM, Oct 29, 2018

CINCINNATI -- United Way of Greater Cincinnati's CEO is on leave less than three days after sending an email to his board of directors alleging that he has been the victim of "subtle threats" and a "hostile work environment."

In a statement issued Monday, United Way board chair Julia Poston, future chair Tim Elsbrock and past chair Carl Satterwhite announced that CEO Michael Johnson "asked the United Way Board leadership for the ability to spend some time away from the office with his family."

Ross Meyer, United Way's senior vice president and chief impact officer, has been appointed as interim CEO during Johnson's time off, the statement said.

Ross Meyer

But in his Oct. 26 email, Johnson, who began his tenure in July, painted a different picture. He detailed concerns to all of United Way's board members about his interactions with Poston.

"I have worked with 10 board presidents in 3 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."

Johnson said Poston has directed him to "run things" through United Way's chief strategy officer, an employee who reports to Johnson. He also said Poston is too closely involved in day-to-day hiring decisions at United Way and pressured him to hire someone she knew for a job instead of hiring the candidate he wanted.

In describing what he called "subtle threats," Johnson, who is the first black CEO in the organization's history, said Poston told him that "she has fired two male CEO's" and told him to reduce his presence in the community and on social media.

"I am not feeling heard, and I don't feel empowered in my role," he wrote.

In another example, Johnson said he sent a letter dated Oct. 15 to members of his executive team regarding issues that concerned him.

Someone forwarded the memo to Poston, he wrote, and she told him he was "nothing more than an angry man" and referred to him as "a boxer in a ring."

"I was very shaken by this altercation and called a friend to pray with me," Johnson wrote.

Johnson described two of United Way's initiatives -- The Employer Round Table and the Child Poverty Collaborative -- as being "at risk."

"Our Board Chair is telling me to stand down as other organizations snatch these programs away from us," he wrote. "Our staff is pleading with me to address this issue, but I am being told to stand down."

Former United Way CEO Rob Reifsnyder, left, board chair Julia Poston, center, and Michael Johnson. (Photo by Matt Steffen)

Johnson wrote that he felt "misled."

"During my interview process, I was not informed about the unprecedented cuts made to United Way staff over the years or the recent campaign trends and cuts we would be facing, plus the role that I would play as your CEO in solving these challenges," he wrote. "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."

As WCPO previously reported, United Way of Greater Cincinnati is preparing to make cuts as large as 20 percent to the agencies it funds because this year's campaign is falling short. Johnson wrote that United Way itself will have to lay off more than a dozen people.

"But, I am capable of handling these challenges and making this organization great," he wrote. "However, I cannot do so if Julia continues to act as the CEO."

Johnson said if the board decides to fire him, he is entitled to a severance and will help with the transition to a new leader. If he stays, Johnson wrote that he will no longer meet with Poston one-on-one.

"She clearly has a discriminatory motive against me based upon her own statements," he wrote. "I suggest that meetings with her will need to include 2 other members of the board of our collective choice to protect everyone involved."

Johnson concluded by writing that he "struggled and prayed" before sending his letter and by thanking the board for "taking the opportunity to understand" his thoughts and concerns.

In an emailed response to the United Way board of directors that WCPO obtained, Poston and Elsbrock wrote that "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 to the board with another email topped by a message from an unnamed board member who offered him support and forwarded to him the response from Poston and Elsbrock.

Johnson noted that they did not copy him on the response and accused them of "misleading" the board. He said "performance issues" were raised after he wrote his letter to the board.

"I have no interest in trying to embarrass United Way because it will do neither of us any good," he wrote. "I would like a resolution soon and would ask that other board members insert them selves in this process as this is flat out wrong and will potential bring division and potential conflict to our community."

Read the text of Johnson's Oct. 26 email below.


Michael Johnson Email by on Scribd


Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region -- to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.

To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.