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Culture audit of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife finds problems with trust, bullying, communication

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage.  (WDFW)
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage. (WDFW)

A cultural audit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, started in lieu of allegations of pervasive sexual harassment, found problems with communication, bullying and internal accountability, according to the Office of the Washington State Auditor.

The culture audit, however, which is the first of its kind in Washington State, did not find that sexual harassment was a pervasive issue.

The audit was first conceived in response to allegations of widespread sexual harassment throughout the agency, culminating in the conviction of former Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Greg Schirat of rape in 2018. At the same time, stakeholders, including politicians, raised concerns about the agency’s culture and accountability, said Emily Cimber, the lead performance auditor.

Despite the problems, Cimber credited the agency for taking proactive steps.

The State Auditor’s office started the culture audit about two years ago. In 2018, Kelly Suseswind was named WDFW’s new director, replacing Jim Unsworth, who had a tumultuous tenure, one marked by the sexual assault allegations and controversy over the handling of bear and wolf hunting practices.

Susewind said he had hoped they would delay the audit until he had a chance to implement changes, but added that he believes the report is “fair.”

“I think it reflects the agency that I see,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Auditors surveyed approximately 800 of about 1,800 WDFW employees and spoke with 222 of them, including 40 individual interviews, 27 group interviews, 10 job shadows and six meetings with regional management. DFW employees also had a dedicated phone line to SAO to discuss their experiences with the office.

In particular, 21% of WDFW employees said they’d experienced workplace bullying, while 30% said they’d witnessed it.

Meanwhile, 48% of respondents said they had a “positive” view of the workplace culture, 27% had a neutral view and 25% had a negative view.

Another problem highlighted by the culture audit was poor communication and the creation of “workplace silos that contributed to communication challenges, which in turn have diminished employee trust in management and hindered cooperation across programs.”

Some staff said they wanted more detailed information about WDFW policy to share with the public.

The one area of the report to which Susewind took exception was the comparison of the agency’s reported rate of bullying to a national average of all adults, not simply adults in the workplace. When compared to reported rates of bullying in the workplace, WDFW’s rate is only slightly higher than the national rate of 20%.

“It looks like we’re twice as bad,” he said when compared to the national average of all adults.

In a written and published response to the audit, Susewind wrote that like other natural resource agencies WDFW “continues to have some of the lowest diversity in state government.”

“As a large, multidisciplinary organization with staff in every corner of the state, WDFW struggles to effectively communicate from the top down, from the bottom up, and across region and program areas. The audit highlighted the need to strengthen internal communication: two-way communication, one-way communication from leadership, and cross-program communication to reduce silos.”

The audit highlighted the positive steps WDFW has taken, in particular the hiring of a new human resources director in 2019 after a “history of low morale and high turnover, which also contributed to negative staff perceptions around accountability” in that department. Since 2019, “the internal culture within HR has shown significant improvement in the last year, but wider agency perceptions take time to change,” the report states.

In particular, the audit recommended WDFW allow employees to review their managers and clarify policies around unprofessional behavior and develop a professional conduct policy, among other things.

“You need to be patient and stay the course,” Cimber said. “Research says it takes three to five years to see a change in culture.”

The audit cost $1.8 million for about 11,500 person-hours of work.

Following the publication of the audit’s finding, Washington Wildlife First, a new nonprofit aimed at reforming WDFW, published a news release and letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to appoint two new commissioners to the WDFW Commission, a nine-member commission that oversees the agency.

“We need Fish and Wildlife commissioners who will not only follow science, but who will have the dedication and moral compass to guide the agency in a new direction,” said David Linn, the interim executive director in the news release.

“We are calling on Governor Inslee to take a stand, not only for the state’s fish and wildlife, but for the brave employees who risked their jobs by speaking to the state auditor. They need to know that their voices have been heard.”

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