Home Interviews Exclusive Interview With Author/Jurist: Michelle T. Johnson J.D.
Exclusive Interview With Author/Jurist: Michelle T. Johnson J.D. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Friday, 28 September 2012 19:27

Michelle T. Johnson was born and grew up in Kansas City (in the state of Kansas). She wears many hats: diversity consultant, certified mediator, speaker, legal analyst and writer. She was also a former journalist and a labor lawyer for several years. More specifically about her journalistic path, Michelle T. Johnson received her degree in this field in 1986. She became a commentator on National Public Radio (“NPR”) and a diversity columnist in the Business section of the Kansas City, Missouri’s daily newspaper as of January 2008 called “Diversity Diva”. She also worked as a newspaper journalist at the Philadelphia Daily News, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Austin American-Statesman.

Michelle T. Johnson attended the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, where in 1994 she was named by the Missouri Supreme Court as the Top Moot Court Oralist of her law school. She received her juris doctorate in 1995 from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. From 1995 till 1999, she was a law associate for Husch Blackwell Sander LLC, one of the largest firms in Missouri.  From 2000 until 2003, she held the position of counsel attorney for Fisher & Phillips. From 2006 until 2010, she was an independent contractor/legal analyst for the law firm Shook Hardy Bacon. She also represented companies and organizations in employment litigation, such as Hallmark Cards, the Kansas City, Missouri School Districts, Deffenbaugh Industries, DST, Kansas City Power and Light, and Interstate Brands Corporation (IBC). Johnson did mediations for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Missouri Human Relations Department and private mediations, etc. Morevover, she has been appointed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to be a member of its Kansas Advisory Committee. Later, she opened her own law firm and briefly worked as a solo practitioner.

Michelle T. Johnson speaks on diversity issues and conducts diversity workshops for several organizations, businesses and colleges across the country, including H&R Block, Hallmark Cards, and several municipalities. She is very open-minded and this year presented a workshop to ex-offenders who were preparing to enter the workforce. In other words, she offers her expertise to businesses of all kinds, schools, governments, organizations, and individuals who often need guidance in managing issues of diversity in their workplaces. In this regard, Johnson has a Diversity Diva Consulting firm which specializes in providing customized diversity training to fit the budget and goals of an organization or individual. It also mediates conflicts related to employment issues and conducts workplace investigations as well as helping organizations with their writing and communication needs.

Johnson, a certified mediator, is the author of articles and books on diversity, including the compelling Working While Black, published in 2004 and re-edited last year. The former president of Bennett College for women, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, wrote the foreword of this book. Dr. Cornel West endorsed Working While Black as did Keith H. Williamson, President of Pitney Bowes Global Credit Services, who was named by Fortune as one as the Top 50 Black executives in the U.S. This book, a career guide for African-American employees in the workplace, has been mentioned and reviewed in several national magazines.

The author has an interesting writing style, which makes her book informative and humorous without sugar-coating the complex issues and difficulties encountered by Black people in the workplace, particularly in corporate settings. Working While Black is one of the best books penned by an employment legalist. It covers many themes related to the workplace: diversity, the glass ceiling, equity, discrimination, and so on.  This book was part of our Top 20 Books for Spring 2012:  http://megadiversities.com/index.

Michelle T. Johnson’s second book is Black Out: The Black person's Guide to Redefining a Career Path Outside of Corporate. It exposes readers to the choices made by hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who challenged themselves by leaving Corporate America to become world-renowned and very wealthy people like Bob Johnson and Oprah Winfrey who followed their passions and achieve their dreams. Black Out was endorsed by prominent people such as Terrie Williams, the founder of The Terrie Williams Agency and the renowned author George C. Fraser. Johnson’s third and latest book The Diversity Code: Unlock the Secrets to Making Differences Work in the Real World was published in 2010. The title of the book is a wink to The Da Vinci Code. The author defines diversity by any and all differences – visible and invisible, large and seemingly small – which have the potential to impact a workplace. The book sheds light on several issues related to diversity and looks at several cases which raise compelling questions and provide valuable insight while offering solutions applied to the different situations which may occur in the workplace. Overall, Michelle Johnson’s books are far from being unnoticed, we can find them outside of the U.S., in other countries such as Canada.

Here Michelle T. Johnson talks about her latest book while sharing her expertise on diversity.

P.T. What made you become multifaceted after establishing your legal profession by embracing a career as an author, speaker and so on?

M.T.J. Since childhood, I always had an interest in diversity. My definition of diversity is about differences of all kinds, not just racial. I have been dealing with diversity issues mainly as a lawyer (for 8 years), journalist, spokesperson and author (for 9 years). To me, it is not a separate thing. It is part of everything that I have done throughout my training workshops, etc. We live in a society where people put others in boxes, or label someone as an expert in a specific area. I consider myself as eclectic and as a professional with knowledge in several domains. My books are based on years of personal and professional experiences. However, I believe that it will be a lifelong journey to discover new aspects of diversity related to different cultures, backgrounds and so on.

P.T. Your great book Working While Black offers several tools (with real life-scenarios and relevant solutions) which can be helpful in the workforce. Share with us some comments you received from readers about how your input has been beneficial in their professional lives.

M.T.J. Working While Black is my first book, and the second edition was released last year. One thing which really makes me happy and proud is when I get e-mails from people who say: “you really nailed the experience of being Black in corporate America; you really got it and thank you for being practical.” That was one of my goals while I was writing the book. When you work as a minority, you might feel alone when you have to face hurdles. So, I wanted the readers to feel that their experience is not unique and that there are ways to overcome the obstacles. My book was not just about exposing problems and I also wanted to propose pragmatic strategies and solutions. I am glad that I was able to achieve that, based on the critiques and positive feedback I receive. My readers let me know that my book brought more clarity to what they have to face along their professional path.

P.T. As you said, your book provides solutions which puts it above many others, and it is not a coincidence that a second edition came out. I always believe that when problems are being exposed without providing solutions, you are part of the problem.

M.T.J. Thank you! I definitely think that it is not enough to give a diagnosis. It is imperative to go beyond that. I am sure that some people who just took a look at the title of my book without reading it thought: “Oh, here it goes again, another Black person who is whining about Blacks in the workplace or is just pointing the finger at problems and issues.” The reality is you can control yourself but not the dynamic and power games. So, my book is about thinking in terms of solutions, not to change other people but to make your experience the best it can be. While the book’s title addresses Black people, this is really a book for anyone who is concerned about eliminating the issue of racial disparity in our society.

P.T. During segregation, the U.S had signs reading: ''No Colored” and “Whites Only.'' Now we hear: ''You're not a good fit for the organization.'' For decades in Black America, the unemployment rate has been double, compared to the mainstream, regardless of the level of education. In addition, underemployment has been a chronic problem for Black America. What can be done to help African-Americans enter the job market, keep the job, move up the ladder and crash the glass ceiling?

M.T.J. Many factors must be considered. Since the late 70s, jobs disappeared from urban areas across America and unemployment rates increased tremendously, especially in the 80s and after. This phenomenon was the consequence of deindustrialization, globalization and technological development. Many factories in the cities closed and the U.S. replaced them with a service economy in urban areas. This is how many Black Americans lost their jobs, especially the ones who were less educated and depended on factories to make a living.

I wish I had a simple answer for your question. With honesty, the issue of the unemployment in Black America being doubled compared to the mainstream has always been the case whether we are facing an economic crises or not, whether we have a Democrat or Republican president. This is true, at least since the bureau of labor began to keep statistics. Obviously, there is at least a twofold reason behind that. It is not about Blacks not willing to work. Even within the top 1 percent of wage earners there is a large disparity between the mainstream and Black America. We have income, but Blacks did not have multiple generations to accumulate the amount of assets like their mainstream counterparts, in other words historically we were not allowed to create a wealth cycle. Debt (college loans…) and lack of inheritance are major obstacles to accumulating net worth, even among rich Blacks. In addition, Black America does not own the means of production. There must be something in the system that does not work. I think part of what happened is that we still live in a country where our history is based on people walking around with stereotypes. Even if there are Whites who don’t hold stereotypes, others do in a direct or subtle way, and this doesn’t disappear in the workplace. These people have a perception of Blacks related to their intelligence level, their discipline, work ethic, personality and so on. These ideas do not go out the window just because the law says they are supposed to. We see this problem at every level. We all know for instance that the citizenship of our first Black president was questioned.

P.T. The mainstream never really raised the question during the last campaign that McCain was born in Panama.

M.T.J. Exactly! There are many assumptions. Even when a Black individual went to an Ivy League institution, has all the required credentials, he can still have problems because of structural barriers. In addition, it won’t stop some people from making their own conclusion about the ability of this person. I am being sarcastic when I say this: there is an assumption of competence that comes when you are part of the majority and when you are in the minority position, you constantly have to demonstrate and prove your basic abilities. So, what is going on is socio-historical. We disproportionately hold jobs which are menial and do not necessarily allow us to make a decent living. The situation goes way beyond our willingness to work hard.

P.T. There are also certain behaviors that some of our people held on to which go back to slavery. For instance, to sabotage the masters, slaves came late to the plantation. This atavism was passed from generation to generation and goes against them now because it is not apply anymore to the current reality. There is healing which needs to take place.

M.T.J. Definitely! There are cultural dynamics to observe and consider. In fact, I analyse and observe dynamics in professional and informal settings. For instance, when I am invited to some social events I mentally look at what culture is organising the soirée to decide how late or punctual I can be. There are advantages and disadvantages in different cultures. I was having a conversation with a Caucasian friend and I told him that for parties, people can lighten up and be more relaxed instead of worrying about eating at a specific time. I am aware that being late also has its inconveniences. It is a question of balance and not imposing a certain way of doing things on other people and interpreting a different behavior than ours as deviant.

P.T. There are professionals from visible minority communities who work in hostile environments where the employers build cases on them with damaging reports, some even denounced them to their professional body. These discriminatory practices are used against them to make sure that they are not promoted. This impacts them gravely and prevents them from moving up the ladder inside and/or outside their companies. Others are overworked (by giving them inhuman tasks, a subtle way to set them up for failure), over-monitored, underpaid and have to go on sick leave or take a sabbatical without a salary. What must be done to protect them legally and what can other organizations such as unions do? In addition, what bills can be implemented and enforced to effect tangible change by dissuading employers from using these discriminatory practices?

M.T.J. It is important that evaluations are not biased and are made on the basis of objective criteria. Discriminatory assessments must be forbidden. The top executives have to implement measures and strategies to make sure that employees are treated fairly. Your question is a pretty big order. I mean, one of the things that people have to remember is a corporation is not a single entity; a corporation is composed of individuals. In America, there are laws that prevent everything that you just raised. In my book, the employment legislation is sufficient. I believe the issue is not the laws but the people behind the enforcement. It is the responsibility of the companies to make sure that their staffs are following the rules or the laws. Do you follow me?

P.T. If the laws are not severe enough, don’t you think that the status quo regarding discriminatory practices will remain, seeing the lack of dissuasion.

M.T.J. I do not believe that. For instance, in a company with 5000 employees, whatever the severity of the penalty, these 5000 people are 5000 individuals. The company has to enforce the laws but it has its limits. What I am saying is the company cannot force someone to not be a racist, for example. In other words, the enterprise does not have the power to control how the person feels toward a group of people. Furthermore, the most diligent compliance with laws and regulations cannot foster true workplace diversity. The best organizations, which become genuine cross-cultural communities, believe equally in reconciling differences and valuing them.

It is noteworthy to mention that companies have the power and responsibility to take measures, such as giving warnings, suspensions and ultimately firing the person who adopts discriminatory practices. It is up to the company to decide that a zero tolerance policy is a priority by implementing a code of political conduct, code of ethics, and so on, which will send a strong message that these kinds of discriminatory behaviors are unacceptable and will be taken seriously.

When I was practicing law, I represented American companies which had anti-discrimination policies. A written equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination policy are needed in every company. These documents prohibit discriminatory practices or harassment of employees based on the main legally forbidden factors: race, citizenship, pregnancy or pregnancy-related medical conditions, etc. It is the responsibility of the companies to make sure that their policies are respected.

P.T. Only circa 2% of discrimination cases (related to labor law) end up in U.S. courtroom in the U.S. As a jurist, what solutions do you see in systemic discrimination regarding the workplace?

M.T.J. Most litigation, regardless of the nature, do not end up in the courtroom. Other mechanisms have been implemented. For instance, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws, which make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or a wage earner. In the fiscal year 2008, the EEOC received 19,453 complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), with 16,705 of these complaints considered by the EEOC to be resolved.

To go back to your question, in my book, going to court is not always the solution. Sometimes, it is better that it does not end up in the courts. In other cases, it is a good thing that it goes to court because it can send a strong message and a signal to the rest of the community. Regarding discrimination, the situation is complex and there is not a simple answer to this issue. Discrimination is real, but unfortunately it can be buried beneath the surface or deeply submerged, because the burden of proof which falls on the hands of the victim is heavy most of the time. In other words, this issue is very subtle, so it is difficult to build a case on it. Discrimination against women, minorities, handicapped and so on are not done most of the time in a blatant manner, which makes it difficult to recognize or acknowledge because of its hindrance. A lot of subjectivities are involved and it can be complex to bring concrete facts.

However, again I believe it is the responsibility of companies to make sure that their employees work in an environment free of discrimination by implementing strict policies and strong disciplinary measures when a staff member does not behave accordingly. What is needed is a change of people’s attitude and I believe education is one of the best tools to do that. So, at least once a year, the enterprises should encourage their employees to do diversity trainings (provided by the company) to educate them. These strategies definitely can prevent situations from escalating. In this regard, to change the way of doing things, a fundamental shift in management consciousness is required in enterprises.

P.T. Kirk Perucca, the former President of Project Equality Inc., wrote: “I believe all employers should read Working While Black so they might learn how to work more effectively with African American employees.” Can you share with us any testimony that you received from an employer about how his practice evolved after reading your book?

M.T.J. Several White managers and employees told me it was insightful. This is what can change inappropriate behaviors when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It allowed some supervisors to assess how they can improve their management practice or style toward their staff. People told me that my book is informative and entertaining. This was reported to me.

P.T. A new edition of Working While Black came out in 2011 after the election of the first African-American President. What is your assessment of the situation regarding Black American employees since the first publication of your book in 2004?

M.T.J. It is a complicated question because I think that what is going on in the workplace is merely a mirror of everything happening in other spheres of our society. With having a Black President, for many people it represented a symbol of how far we have come in terms of race relations in our country. To some extent, there is truth to this; however, on the other hand it highlighted how divided we are. I am thinking about people who resist the achievements of Black people, they now have a symbol to really be upset at from breaking that ultimate glass ceiling. In addition, having a Black President does not mean that all the discrimination in America suddenly disappeared. Even our President had to explain his background. No other White candidates or Presidents had to do that. The word Black came up so many times in the media during the campaign, and after. It is like an obsession and it shows that we cannot get pass this. It highlights how people notice differences between White and Black America. This situation did put a heavier burden on more Black employees who had to explain in their workplace their cultures and themselves, which can be exhausting. I see this phenomenon like when The Cosby Show came out decades ago. It took this show for some people from the mainstream to wake up and see that we are not monolithic. They realised the existence of Black people who have liberal professions (with all the privileges that comes with it). During this era, they wanted to know more about the different strata of Black America. It required more conversations (regarding the significance of being Black in the U.S.) at that time as well as now with a Black couple at the White House who went to the Ivy Leagues.

In addition, I really see a parallel between what happened in the White House and in the workforce regarding a person of African descent in a position of power who is a trailblazer in a particular realm. For instance when the first Black physician entered a hospital, the first Black lawyer integrated a firm or the first Black accountant worked for a CPA bureau, it was always a breakthrough. It changes the dynamics of the workforce and how we look at things. It often can be difficult to be the first in anything, not just for Blacks, but also for women for instance.

P.T. In your third book The Diversity Code, you made a very interesting point. You mentioned that the law is very limited in what it addresses when it comes to diversity. Legal prohibitions are about what people can’t do. You added that the law can say that it is actionable to create a hostile work environment but the legislation doesn’t address how to create a positive work environment based on one of the legally defined protected classes. Can you elaborate more on this statement and tell us as a jurist how the law can be improved in that context?

M.T.J. It goes back a little bit to what I said earlier. The law can prohibit things, but can’t make people do things. For example, every country has laws against murders, but these legislations won’t prevent people from killing others regardless of the consequences. A law cannot make somebody behave respectfully toward an individual, or make him/her understand the cultural background of a person. It is not possible to legislate what people feel in their heart. In any area of our lives, the law created a social contract which says this is what was agreed to, but it cannot force people to act accordingly. In that sense, the law has its limits, despite the penalties. Unfortunately there are companies that are being fined millions of dollars because of discrimination and it doesn’t necessarily stop them from committing other felonies. However, as mentioned earlier beside the law, other tools such as education through training can be helpful, because it allows people to evolve and think about other perspectives which can lead individuals to make other decisions.

P.T. In The Diversity Code, you mentioned that some companies use tokenism and even actors in their ads as a cosmetic appearance of diversity. What can be done to create a truly diverse staff in these companies?

M.T.J. The brochures (with glowing press releases…) can show a false representation of some companies. Other enterprises have the tendency to put too much emphasis on the visual aspect by hiring people to make their company look great. Diversity is much more than that. It is about representing people with visual or invisible disabilities and so on. In addition, if we see for instance on the picture a White man shaking hands with a Black female it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. It doesn’t let the public know if people of different ethnicities truly get along with one another in the company or if the workload is fairly shared, etc. The pictures represents only be a nice visual which gives a positive impression, but doesn’t provide thorough information.

There are companies which create a diversity report at least once per year. It serves as a visible quantifiable and measurable marker of diversity. Statistics have limits because they don’t say anything about retention, but at least they are a start. The retention tells the story of how well diversity is really working when it comes to certain groups, and the focus must be on this in the long-term.

To make sure that there is a real diverse staff, I believe that the company needs to have a true commitment to make sure that everybody is treated with respect and fairly. Diversity has to be valued and prioritised in the enterprise. So, the company must hire people who reinforce these principles and everyone has to be accountable for these values. I don’t believe that it is only the responsibility of Human Resources to ensure these principles. It may be their principal duties but it is also everybody’s job. For instance, in a medical clinic if a patient refuses to be seen by a male nurse, his superior has to support his colleague and make sure that the patient understands that no discrimination based on gender will take place to provide the care required. The focus always has to be about the competency of the professional and nothing else. In this case, the medical clinic, has the mandate to send a clear message to the clientele who benefit from its care. The so-called differences have to go out the window. It is everybody’s responsibility to get beyond that. This is my approach about how diversity has to be handled. I believe that these ways of handling things may prevent legal discrimination cases.

To summarize, some enterprises have a so-called diverse staff on the surface or a carefully engineered appearance of such without making real structural changes inside the organisations. The situation can be complex and far from being simplistic. It is important to remember that numbers regarding diversity in the workplace are only a starting point for determining whether a company truly has a good handle on diversity. An enterprise can organize events to honor diversity or follow employment and non-discrimination laws to the letter, but at the end of the day it’s the substantive issues like widespread grievances and foible to deal with ongoing issues related to lack of diversity which tell the real story. True diversity starts to take place only when people learn how to reconcile and respect their cultural differences.

P.T. What message do you want the public to take away from your book The Diversity Code?

M.T.J. I want people to understand that diversity is not an “us” versus “them” problem or issue. No group is monolithic. Within the same group many other factors such as social classes are to be considered. Diversity relates to different sub-cultures. Everybody is diverse and has a difference to deal with: social class, weight, sexual orientation and so on.

If people with similar views work on a project, there will be redundant aspects in it. Different perspectives create a more productive and richer workplace. I believe in the importance of having a more expansive approach to difference for the growth of a company.

The Diversity Code is also about how the companies can improve and better deal with all the heterogeneity in the workplace. It is not only about race, but it also concerns age, gender, disabilities, height, religion, etc. My third book is about how people can figure out how to do the right thing before it becomes a discrimination case.

As an author, my ultimate goal is for the readers to use the scenarios with the exercises and tools to continue educating themselves and others while applying what they learned in their workplace, whatever their occupation. I think that everybody has something to gain by extending themselves across race, class, gender, age and so on.

I believe that my book raises important questions such as:

Are you generally fine with the concept of diversity?

Are there specific aspects of it that you have a problem with?

Are there certain groups of people that you have difficulty dealing with?

Does the way your company handles diversity issues sometimes make you feel any kind of discomfort? Or worse, are you experiencing resentment?

I think it is important for readers who wish to evolve to ask themselves these questions and give themselves honest answers. Diversity is about more than just agreeing with the basic principles. It is way deeper than that. To summarize, it was important as an author to make sure that each chapter begins with a challenging question and to provide answers afterward. I also wanted the readers from all walks of life (managers and so on) to test their knowledge of diversity (how do they define it? How do I, as a supervisor, handle diversity problems on my team, etc.?) and assess themselves.

P.T. I think these aspects give originality to your book because it allows the readers to assess how they position themselves in terms of diversity. It also shows creativity.

M.T.J. Thank you! I want the readers to check themselves and admit, for instance, if they are supportive of diversity initiatives for certain groups of people, but have issues with, or reluctance to other groups. My book offers strategies to improve culture inclusiveness in companies and so on. We live in a country obsessed with race. The Diversity Code goes beyond race. It opens people to understand how to work with others and try to achieve personal harmony. The Diversity Code can help businesses to become genuine cross-cultural communities that not only acknowledge and espouse differences, but also highlights those unique perspectives one brings to the workplace.

My book raises several questions such as:

• How do you define diversity—what it is and isn’t?

• Am I “safe” simply following the law?

• Can’t we just acknowledge that we are the same and different—then get on with our work?

• How do I handle diversity problems on my staff—or people who outrank me?

• What I need to do if I’m accused of something?

• How do I institute change without ticking people off?

To finish, I strongly believe in this Dr. King’s quote: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; this means we must develop a world perspective. “In this regard, the main message of The Diversity Code is universal.

P.T. Ageism (which comes in many forms: harassment, etc.) is another big issue regarding discrimination in the workplace. Also, a workplace where there are mainly young people can be seen as lacking of diversity in terms of age. What can be legally done to ensure more aging employees keep their jobs?

M.T.J. [Silence] Your questions are really interesting because you asked them in a linear way, but they don’t always have unilateral answers. I believe that ageism has always been a problem, but now, for the first time in the workplace, we have several generations together mainly the baby boomers, the generation X and Y which have to deal with their differences.

The bigger the workplace, the wider the age group becomes. There are prejudices in our society and we cannot deny that. The youth are overvalued and seen as better (with new energy), superior to wiser and older people. It is true that young people bring knowledge with new technologies and so on. On the other hand, older employees have more experience and credentials with different value systems. Unfortunately, this can go against them in the job market because some employers might be reluctant to hire them, seeing that in many cases they cost more and they are seen as being overqualified.

I must say that there are European countries such as Sweden and Denmark which did put in place successful policies to fight unemployment for people over 50. It would be interesting to take a closer look at this and see how it could be applied in the U.S.

P.T. There are older employees in America who get fired just before they are allowed to have their full pension. How can they be more protected legally from this?

M.T.J. You are right. These unfortunate situations happen. Age discrimination is very real and once an older employee is fired it can be very difficult to reintegrate the workforce. They have to face many challenges and one of them is called the “gray ceiling.” However, again I think the question is not about weak legislation related to this issue. I believe there are enough bills out there to protect older workers. You cannot make somebody not discriminate.

It is up to the individual to analyse his/her situation and make the choice which will benefit him/her in the long run. He/she has to assess the consequences related to his/her mental health, for instance to see how far the individual wants to combat. It is important to carefully choose your battles and do what is best for you. He/she has to read between the lines, assess who he/she can and cannot trust. You need allies and people who are competent to give you clarity. Every situation is different. You have to examine and figure out what is the right tactic to apply in your work environment.

P.T. Do you think the common denominator of successful people is the fact that they found their true calling? And do you believe in this quote: “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”?

M.T.J. I completely agree with that quote because this is what maturity is all about. It is your choices which determine your path and destiny. Since my childhood, I have been passionate about diversity and writing. I thought about law when I was an adult. I know that I will write until the day I die [Laughs].

P.T. Likewise [chuckles].

M.T.J. I might have other professional changes in the future, but writing will remain. I strongly believe that it is easier to succeed when you are passionate about a domain, you have to be turned on by it. Successful people do not rest on their laurels and they do not make excuses. To do this, you need motivation so the love for your field must be there. Successful people reassess themselves, are open to constructive criticism, which allow them to evolve. They manage to find more effective or efficient strategies. In addition, they test their limits and leave their comfort zones. I talk about this in my book Black Out. Having confidence in your ability is the bedrock of success. When you find your true calling, you cannot be easily dissuaded.

About Black Americans, they cannot let feelings determine their path or define them. I mean they cannot allow themselves to say I won’t go into that profession because there are no or few Blacks in it. I don’t believe in this kind of mindset or belief systems because it is limiting and you don’t go anywhere with a tunnel or negative vision. When our people internalize these perceptions, it becomes a two-fold problem. So, it is important to have a positive attitude in spite of hurdles to move forward in life.

P.T. Do you have another book in mind? If so, what will it be about?

M.T.J. I am about to become the part-time diversity coordinator at a local school in Kansas City. This school is really committed to diversity and wants to make it a priority.

P.T. I think this is a great initiative by this school. Is it going to be part of your job to prevent kids from being bullied?

M.T.J. Definitely! Bullying can come up because some people like to focus negatively on differences. Fortunately, the school doesn’t have these problems, but it is important for this establishment to keep it that way, and the administration makes prevention a priority. So, my job will be about giving workshops, speaking to parents and children, go over the school’s curriculum, which need to be accurate and age appropriate, etc. In terms of writing, I have a play which will come out this year and it will cover themes related to diversity. In addition, in the future I would like to pen a book about diversity among children, and it will comprise information concerning how adults can teach kids about differences.

P.T. Thanks Michelle Johnson for sharing your valuable knowledge with the public as an author and jurist. Continue to produce for us books with substance. It was a real pleasure to speak to you!


Excerpt of Working While Black:

“This chapter addresses the "attitude" problem, also known as coming to work Black. Since that sounds so negative, I have to explain it.

First of all, part of the problem with telling people that they have an attitude problem is that it is a subjective call. What you call attitude, I call righteous indignation. What you call attitude, I might call frustration. What you call attitude, I might call personality.

[Nonetheless,] every time your boss sticks that label on you, it's not necessarily wrong. Some people do have generally funky attitudes. You know them. So do I. They have a smart-ass answer for everything, or they are unnecessarily argumentative, or they have one relationship problem after another without appearing to learn any lessons.

When attitude becomes an issue for a Black person in the workplace, however, is when a Black employee does not feel that his employer is doing right by him and he suspects it is because he is Black, or at least suspects that it is based on some reason that is not fair. Before that employee gets to the point of filing a complaint, he usually develops an "attitude" to carry him through this rough work environment.

A lot of the perceived attitude problem isn't about the Black employee at all; it's about the person who is doing the perceiving. Truth is, Whites are not always very good at reading the moods or facial expressions of Black people. It never ceases to amaze me that the frame of reference many White Americans have for Blacks comes from watching Good Times or The Jeffersons on television.

Blacks, on the other hand, can't afford to enter the workforce with the same level of ignorance about White America that Whites can have for every other minority group.

In the past year alone, I've had to explain to my White coworkers, at different times, who Lauren [sic] Hill, Luther Vandross, and P. Diddy were. Can you imagine me going to work and having to say that I had never heard of Gwyneth Paltrow, Garth Brooks, or Richard Simmons? They would look at me with disbelief, amazed at how I managed to make it to a professional career in such cultural ignorance. They would say Gwyneth and Richard were "mainstream," and how could I pick up a newspaper or magazine or watch television without hearing of them? Didn't I see Shakespeare in Love, or Garth's NBC Special, or Richard's Oldies but Goodies tape on the shopping network?

Yet, I've encountered White co-workers my age who have never heard of Jet magazine, don't know that Luther's Never Too Much is a classic, and don't remember P. Diddy from when he was sampling as Puff Daddy.

I once saw a grown woman on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire blank on the question, "Who is the 'Queen of Soul'?" I remember asking how any game show contestant over the age of 30 could not know that Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. I'll admit, a lot of White folks probably scratched their head at that one, too.

The level of ignorance allowed by Whites in the workplace is one of the reasons why a lot of Black employees have an attitude problem. Not every Black person believes that every White person is ignorant, but Blacks can be resentful that this ignorance can be so open and blatant.

When the majority of the people you work with don't know the names of the top pop culture figures with your skin color (unless the person has gone completely mainstream), it takes its toll on you. For most Blacks this is an example of how Whites don't have any interest in knowing anything about Blacks unless it directly benefits them.

Despite all our good reasons for indulging in a bad attitude in the workplace, we can never let that attitude crush us.   . . . No matter how hard it is, no matter how many reasons you have not to, never go to work with a demeanor that expresses anything short of "I'm glad to be here and you should be d* glad to have me." With that attitude, you can roll through whatever comes up.”

Official Website: www.MichelleTJohnson.com


University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law

1992 – 1995

University of Kansas

Bachelor of Science, Journalism

1982 – 1986


1. Writing

2. Mediation

3. Dispute Resolution

4. Public Speaking

5. Employee Relations

6. Conflict Resolution

Selected Speaking Appointments:

• Scheduled speaker for April 2010 workshop at California State University in Los Angeles on diversity issues for students entering the workforce

• Conducted Continuing Legal Education diversity workshop for the Kansas Bar Association

• Speaker at the Greater Kansas City Legal Recruiters Association, the Kansas City chapter of the National Black MBA Association, and the Kansas City chapter of the American Business Women’s Association

• Diversity speaker at the Yellow Freight System Inc. headquarters on behalf of the National Association of African-Americans in Human Resources

• Diversity facilitator for discussions at UPS Headquarters in Atlanta, Augsburg Fortress Press in Minneapolis, Loyola University in Chicago, and Presbyterian Church Headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky

• Featured speaker at The Project Equality national conference conducted at the National Education Association in Washington DC

• Keynote speaker at the Corporate Diversity luncheon at the Urban League in Greater Kansas City and Workshop leader at Howard University in D.C. for the Urban League Exchange Program

• Workshop facilitator, the Economic Empowerment Summit held in Buffalo, New York and Keynote speaker for Prevail-Respect’s “Tell It Like It Is: Working While Black” Conference in Columbus, Ohio (a day-long event that organizers designed around my book)

• Workshop leader for diversity issues at the 30th Annual Black Studies Conference in Chicago and Black Women’s Leadership Conference at University of Missouri-Kansas City

• Diversity trainer for H&R Block in Kansas City, the Firefighters of Topeka, Kansas and for the city employees of the city of Kansas City, Missouri

Selected groups and associations:

Barn Players of Kansas Theatre, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, SMU Networking event, KC Professionals, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, Sheffield Place, BRAVO (Black Retailers Actively Vying for Opportunities), Book Publishing Professionals, Diversity PEG (Professional Emphasis Group) of the National Speakers, Diversity and Cross Cultural Professionals, Emotional Intelligence and Diversity Institute, HR Business Partnership Forum, MU School of Law Professional Network, Speakers and Panelists, Success Minded African Americans

Selected Reviews for The Diversity Code:

“[W]ell written, easy to read, and filled with practical ‘how to’ ideas, best practice suggestions, and exercises for your most junior associate and most senior executive.”

Bill Bargas, Chief Diversity Officer, Diversity.com

From the Back Cover

“Through real-world observations, [Johnson] shares valuable insights on its definition along with practical, thought-provoking tools that challenge a broader understanding of diversity and the impact that our individual mindsets have on inclusion in the workplace. A must-read to learn the benefits of embracing diversity professionally and in your personal life.”

Bonnie Heenan, Global Procurement Manager for Hallmark Cards, Inc. “With the precise motions of a surgeon, Michelle Johnson yet again dares to go where few people ever do in discussing issues of gender, race, sexual preference, and a multitude of other differences, providing clear and insightful guidance into achieving inclusion and understanding the need for diverse workplaces.”

Steve Denson, Director of Diversity and Lecturer, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University

“Michelle is a very forward-thinking author. She is as much of a teacher as she is an author.”

Brian K. Britton, AVP, Construction & Procurement, Black & Veatch – Building a World of Difference™

A Review for Black Out: The Black person's Guide to Redefining a Career Path Outside of Corporate

“Few books say it better or simpler than this one. Black Out is an uncomplicated overview on how to live a rewarding career and life. I was inspired by Michelle T. Johnson’s insight, wisdom and willingness to share the important lessons she has learned along her path to success. This book is a must read for all those who are serious about avoiding the pitfalls of corporate life or climbing one’s own ladder of success. My hat goes off to Michelle for such an important contribution to our community.”

-- George C. Fraser, Author, Success Runs In Our Race

Selected Reviews for Working While Black:

"This book examines in an insightful way a delicate and difficult issue—the triumph and tragedies of black upward mobility. Don't miss it!"

Dr. Cornel West, author, Race Matters

"I believe all employers should read Working While Black so they might learn how to work more effectively with African American employees. This book provides a powerful insight in the ways that African Americans must continually adjust in the workplace. If employers used that knowledge and responded in a meaningful way, the workplace would be much more productive and healthier for all employees.” —Kirk P. Perucca, former President and CEO, Project Equality, Inc. "Johnson has plenty of good advice."

Library Journal

"Breaks down work relationships in terms that almost every employed person can relate to."

Jacksonville Free Press

"With a refreshing blend of humor . . . and frankness, Johnson delivers no-nonsense advice."

Minority MBA

“[This] should be required reading for every Black person entering the work place.”

Keith H. Williamson, President, Pitney Bowes Global Credit Services