John Sarno, President of the Employers Association of New Jersey (EANJ) will be leaving his position at the end of 2023 for other professional and academic pursuits. Hired in 1995, he is only the third chief executive in the organization’s 107-year history.
EANJ’s board announced a search for a new chief executive in November.
Known for his high energy and creativity in supporting employers and developing multi-stakeholder initiatives, Sarno leaves a legacy of innovative leadership in both the private and public sectors, and an extensive body of work in employment law, labor standards, management training and public policy.
Most of his work at the Association has been at the center of law and the workplace, advising employers on best management practices and training good employers to be better. During his tenure, he trained thousands of managers and supervisors from the executive suite to the shop floor, at innumerable worksites, from manufactures to nonprofit agencies, at universities and municipalities, at financial and healthcare institutions.
During much of that time, he also taught management, law, ethics and public policy at several universities. According to a student on his LinkedIn profile, “John Sarno is everyone’s favorite professor! His ability to teach and engage students is unmatched. He’s passionate and extremely knowledgeable about public policy & history and is able to tie back to economic impacts. Both fun and challenging.”
During the COVID pandemic, he served on the Governor’s Task Force on Small Business and as a member of HealthyNJ, helping to develop the state population health strategic plan. During the pandemic, he delivered bi-monthly webinars attended by over one thousand employers and the Association published a comprehensive report on employer policies and procedures.
In addition to his executive and strategic leadership, Sarno led an expert staff of lawyers and subject matter experts to advise employers on labor and employment issues, provide workplace training, in addition to offering access to benefits’ plans.
According to an employer-member on his LinkedIn Profile, “John was an excellent business partner. He helped us design and implement the Executive level training on legal issues which collectively guided the Company to achieve great results.”
Sarno participated in all three branches government, working on legislation, proposed regulations and cases before the appellate and supreme courts of the state.
In Aguas v. State of New Jersey, an employer’s affirmative defense in an employee’s harassment suit was established. Carrone v. UnitedHealth upheld employment arbitration, and Maw v. Advanced Clinical Communications upheld non-competition agreements.
Sarno published frequently with an enormous output of articles, case summaries, compliance guidance, monographs, blogs and commentaries. He developed and taught HR law courses and is widely recognized in the state as an employment law expert.
Always headquartered in Essex County, Sarno positioned the Association to shape public policy and brand himself as a thought leader.
“It was frustrating at first, with Trenton being so insular,” he says.
Sarno has recounted how he walked State Street introducing himself to other association leaders only to be lost in the scrum of lobbying. He was turned off to the short-term thinking that drove their agendas.
And he learned quickly that small business priorities did not mesh with the needs of larger employers.
“While every employer is a business, not every business is an employer,” he says.
88.6% of businesses in New Jersey employ 9 or fewer workers, only 2.9% of businesses employ 50 or more workers.
“Small businesses tend to ignore labor regulations, if possible. Larger employers typically want to comply with regulations, or at least be in a good position when things don’t go well,” he says.
But when the country elected Barack Obama and later Phil Murphy governor of the state, Sarno and the Association were well positioned to provide thoughtful and forward-thinking leadership on labor standards, worker protections and employer-sponsored healthcare reform.
He became an expert on the Affordable Care Act and his substantial contributions to the Murphy health, labor and economic transition teams expanded the Association’s overall participation in the wider government, business and legal communities. His expert service during the pandemic is widely viewed as a seminal moment in his career.
Sarno also applied his university research and teaching in behavioral science to focus on workplace culture and leadership to maximize organizational performance and create healthy teams. With degrees in psychology, counseling and the law, his multi-disciplinary training became popular with human resource professionals at a variety of employers.
In 2022, Sarno developed and co-taught Leadership in the New Age, a filled-to-capacity class that focused on collective knowledge building and collaboration within increasingly diverse workplaces. He later published Transforming Workplace Culture: Ethics, Diversity and Innovation in the International Journal of Management and Business and became a popular presenter at management conferences and media commentator.
A major membership expansion among cities and municipalities also resulted in innovative training to reduce risks by improving culture and fostering accountability.
His tenure at the Association was not an endless line of achievements, however. When he led the sponsorship of a multiple employer healthcare plan in 2009 in the midst of major healthcare reform, membership soared three-fold within the decade. When the plan filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, two-thirds of the membership was lost.
“It was crisis leadership, for sure. High levels of stress, for sure,” Sarno says. He says that the experience deepened his understanding of the physical and mental aspects of work-life balance.
During that time, he published Better Work for More People: Meaningful Jobs and the Renewal of Virtue, arguing that purposeful work was essential to mental health, healthy communities and a functioning democracy. It built on scholarship done early in his career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and called for a healthier and more meaningful relationship between management and labor, the business community and the community at large.
Sarno’s post-pandemic leadership has been powerful and astute, as mental health, burnout and morale have become top employer concerns.
While steering the Association back onto a sustainable path, he considers supporting the Association’s staff through the pandemic and beyond as one of his most meaningful accomplishments.
“The Association staff is remarkable. They have been the reason why we have remained sustainable. It’s their high-level expertise and impressive knowledge, their commitment to the mission . . . that’s the reason why members have stayed,” he says.
Unlike the health plan, a multiemployer retirement savings plan that the Association formed in 2014 may prove a long-lasting achievement.
A recent membership meeting exhibited the trust and loyalty necessary for a membership-driven organization to thrive. “We trust and rely on the support that EANJ gives us,” said a meeting participant. “EANJ is our lifeline,” said another.
“What have we learned from the devastation and heartache caused by the pandemic?” he asked at a recent business meeting.
For some employers, the pandemic has marked a shift in thinking about workers’ physical safety and mental wellbeing, he observed.
Most recently, Sarno has been recognized by the Community Health Law Project for his lifelong commitment to advancing equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities and by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association for his public policy leadership.
He also received a Joint Legislative Resolution honoring the importance of his work and contributions to the betterment of the common good.
According to Sarno, “It’s certainly great to be recognized, the result of doing great work with great people throughout my entire career, including to this very day.”
The Association’s board has been invaluable to the organization’s success, he says. “The bond between the board and me has been one of mind, heart and spirit. Only through the group can the mission be fulfilled, ego and personal ambition second to the greater good. It has been one of the great privileges of my career to serve them,” he says.
Sarno will continue to serve as a board member of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey and on the State Commission of Employment and Training, where he is forming a Committee on Mental Health at Work helping to incorporate mental health awareness and solutions as part of the state's workforce readiness strategy.
He has also been appointed as Distinguished Executive-in-Residence at Rutgers Business School in Newark, where he will be working with his friend and colleague Jeana Wirtenberg, Executive Director at the Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation where he will be teaching and mentoring students and business leaders on achieving both corporate and societal goals.
At the same time, Sarno has also joined his longtime colleague Keith Miller at his law firm, also in Newark, where he will provide advice and council on employment and labor relations cases and be available for workplace consultations.
“I am overjoyed as I begin the next chapter,” he says. “I live to work with both sides of the brain.”