Harper Donohue Appointed First Black
Madison HR Director
Focused and Determined
Madison native Harper Donohue has worked his way up the
ranks since 2005 to become Madison’s first African
American Director of the Human Resources Department.
“I was excited,” Donohue said. “So it was really easy for me to sell city jobs. It was kind of like being a natural born cheerleader.
Unfortunately, the downside of that was I spent a lot of time selling jobs and I got real good at it. But you post a position and maybe 100 people
will apply. And only one person is getting selected. While I was good at selling jobs, I was also the first person people were calling when
things didn’t work out. That was tough. But I took pride in the fact that when I worked with folks, I was genuine. And if I felt someone would be
a good fit, I would try to talk them through our process just to make sure they understood what was going on and they knew what to expect.
Sometimes it worked out for folks. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for everyone. We had so many folks competing for opportunities.”
Around this time, Affirmative Action Division Director Norman Davis took Donohue to a department/division directors meeting revealing a
world that Donohue had never seen before.
“Part of that role as an EO analyst was I would be working with the different agencies and around October is the time that we are dealing with
budgets,” Donohue said. “I was just impressed by the way that folks were responding to different things. The mayor was setting the budget. The
department heads were weighing in to whatever their concerns were for their respective agencies. What do people need and what do people
want? When we do this, how will folks respond? I thought it was interesting. And I was impressed just being in the room. As far as my ability to
be a department or division head, I didn’t think I would get that opportunity here with the city of Madison. I’m just being candid. I really thought
that I would have to leave and I was okay with that. But while I was here, I was going to take advantage of every opportunity that presented
It was around this time in 2010-2011 that Ariel Ford, the EOC division head was pushing Donohue to go back to school.
“I remember Ms. Ford over in DCR telling me to get back into school,” Donohue recalled. “And I was just happy having a bachelor’s degree.
And she told me that wasn’t enough.”
A position opened up in the HR Department and Donohue was encouraged to apply for it.
“Brad Wertz was the HR director,” Donohue said. “He was asking me — the way he framed it — ‘Do you want to do some real HR work?’ And I
think it was more so taking on a generalist role, getting exposed to what they were doing over here. In my role as a recruiter, I wasn’t actually
doing the full-spectrum of HR work. I was recruiting and trying to get folks to the table, working with the different agencies about the positions.
But in terms of the full-range of HR work, I didn’t start doing that until I came over here.”
In his position as an HR generalist, Donohue became involved in all phases of the hiring process.
“I did position studies and classification studies,” Donohue said. “There was some exposure to labor relations. We did the employment piece
as far as posting jobs and testing for the jobs. There was still some of that community work, but it wasn’t the focus that it was before. I
provided guidance to supervisors and managers and employees on benefits and other things.”
Donohue was fortunate to take the generalist position. DCR eliminated his position after he left.
In 2014, Donohue became a member of HR’s labor relations team. He worked on contract negotiations with the police, fire and Madison Metro
unions and worked with the employee associations that sprang up after ACT-10 essentially eliminated the public sector unions.
“We did meet and confer with the associations,” Donohue said. “The communication and relationships were still there. We went away from the
contracts with those folks and we formed handbooks. We worked with them to create handbooks. And it was one of those deals where with
3,600 employees, something is going to need to be addressed. Performance management, handbooks and ordinance interpretation were the
large part of the work of a labor relations specialist. With or without the contracts, we still have employees. We still had to be able to
communicate benefits, expectations and other things along those lines. The work was different, but the work was still there. The contracts are
gone, but we still meet with association leadership. We don’t just throw anything on our folks. I would like to think that we are a good
employer. We work through it. If we are looking at proposing changes, we have labor-management meetings in different agencies. We meet
with different association groups. We talk to them about what we want to do. We get their feedback and input and we try to put the stuff out.”
When Brad Wertz retired as the HR director last year, Donohue was appointed to be the interim director last August. And as the interim director
and still in labor relations, Donohue led the contract negotiation team for the city that negotiated a new police contract.
“I think the relationship with the police union is pretty good,” Donohue observed. “It went pretty well. We’re actually going into contract
negotiations right now. But I think that employees will always want as much as they can get, especially as it comes to wages. That’s fair. I
want as much as I can get as well. But then the city budget is the city budget. And then as far as parity in our wages goes, it’s not acceptable to
give police, fire and Metro increases that other employees aren’t able to get because they can still bargain. We want to keep everyone at parity
regardless if you have a contract or a handbook. We’re trying to keep everyone in step together. They were ahead of us, but we’ve done a
pretty good job of catching other folks up. Honestly, I thought it was a good bargain in regards to where they were. They were ahead of folks. I
felt, for the most part, were very reasonable with their requests.”
Donohue successfully competed to become the permanent HR department head, the first African American to hold the position. While he has
finally moved his professional and personal belongings to the director’s office, he has been wary of permanently moving in until the Common
Council approves his appointment. Yet Donohue has certainly taken the reins of the department. Along with all of the other duties of being the
HR director, Donohue is committed to having the city workforce reflect the city’s population.
“I think people get equal opportunity as far as our values are concerned,” Donohue said. “You have laws in regards to how we are going to do
things. We have our personnel rules. But I think even beyond that, as far as city values go, I think the next step right now is everyone gets
what we say we are going to do. I don’t think that we always do it. I think there is a belief that we don’t do as much as we can and should. I
think it’s getting folks to really understand that commitment to it, not only to a diverse workforce, but also a more inclusive workforce. I think it’
s important that you have women and folks of color all throughout the organization. If you just chase the numbers, we don’t look that bad. We
actually look pretty decent in terms of percentages. But we can do a lot better. I feel that there we need to have folks all throughout the
organization. And I’m excited.”
Donohue is grateful to everyone who has helped him along the way including Enis Ragland, Lucía Nuñez and Norman Davis.
“Honestly, I’m feeling a lot of gratitude right now,” Donohue emphasized. “I’m a Madison kid. I grew up here. It surprises folks. My mom and
dad have been very supportive. My daughter, I think because I’m a Madison kid, my daughter doesn’t get the motivations that I’ve had. Things
just lined up for me and I’m excited. I want to make my mom proud. I definitely want to recognize Ms. Milele as well. I actually got a message
from her. She was actually saying how proud she is. She said that she reached out to Mayor Soglin and told him to mentor me. And he did me
one better. He made me a department head. Everyone just recognizes that there was some potential there and pushed me.”
Donohue reached his dreams. Now he can help others achieve theirs.
By Jonathan Gramling
Madison native Harper Donohue, the city of Madison’s interim Human
Resources director, has been surrounded by a village of people who have
given him the friendly push and critical guidance throughout his educational
and professional career. When he was at UW-Madison, it was the late
Jacqueline DeWalt, director of the PEOPLE Program at the time.
“She forced me to do things that were uncomfortable because she knew that it
would benefit me in the long run,” Donohue said. She challenged me and I
accepted it. It’s funny because people always say that about folks pass away.
But then when I listen to folks talk like the way that I can attribute successes
that I may have found in Miss Jackie, she had those relationships with a lot of
other folks. I think about Dr. Barrows when I was on campus. I grew up with
his sons. He really looked out for me. He was in my ear.”
Donohue came on board with city’s Affirmative Action Department as it was
being merged with the Equal Opportunities Commission to form the Department
of Civil Rights back in 2005 as an equal opportunity specialist. Donohue
became the civil rights recruitment specialist — which was classified as an
HR analyst — in the newly merged department.