Politics & Government

Reports of sexual banter, hazing among some employees prompt changes at Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife offices in the Department of Natural Resources building on the Captiol Campus in Olympia.
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife offices in the Department of Natural Resources building on the Captiol Campus in Olympia. toverman@theolympian.com

Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins of public radio’s Northwest News Network.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is increasing efforts to prevent sexual harassment and boost diversity within its ranks after two internal investigations found examples of sexual harassment, hazing and frequent inappropriate conversations among some employees.

Fish and Wildlife’s Director Jim Unsworth said in an email to staffers last week the agency has a strong policy against sexual harassment and hostile workplace behavior, but he added the department needs to do more to ensure problems are reported quickly.

“It’s clear from our own internal investigations that many WDFW staff members have not been comfortable raising these issues within their chain of command or existing human resources procedures,” Unsworth wrote. “Whether our agency is just a reflection of society or has its own unique cultural issues, we must improve our performance in this area.”

He also outlined actions intended to improve diversity at the agency. In the past, Unsworth has said some agency issues with workplace culture may be exacerbated by the gender make up of Fish and Wildlife workers. About 31 percent of the the roughly 1,900 employees in the agency are women.

The main tenets of Fish and Wildlife’s plan include:

  • Enhancing sexual harassment and diversity training for employees and supervisors.
  • Providing a confidential channel for staff to raise concerns about workplace misconduct.
  • Creating an advisory group on diversity and developing a plan to increase diversity and inclusion.
  • Establishing a resource group for women to “encourage mentoring, cultivate inclusiveness, and support career development for women.”

The action comes in the wake of a number of public revelations about inappropriate behavior by some agency employees.

Last month, the four highest-ranking workers at a state-run fish hatchery near Pateros were fired after a consultant found rampant sexual conversations and hazing at the facility.

Some of the terminated employees described the conversations as good-natured “locker room talk,” but the atmosphere led at least one woman to leave the office. In response to the report, the Douglas County Public Utility District, which owns the Wells Hatchery, moved last week to end its contract with Fish and Wildlife to operate the facility.

The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network also reported last month on a law firm’s investigation in 2015 that found an office culture among some in Fish and Wildlife’s upper management that one workplace expert described as “highly sexualized.”

The behavior included one example of sexual harassment and frequent sexual banter, according to the firm’s report. The conduct went largely unreported to the agency’s human resources department and top leaders for more than a year until one agency employee accused another of raping her.

In an interview Tuesday, Unsworth said much of his plan for increased training came from researching how other state agencies and businesses are increasing diversity and preventing inappropriate behavior.

Specifically, Unsworth said he took ideas from the state Attorney General’s Office on recruiting diverse applicants and the American Fisheries Society on mentoring groups, inclusiveness and diversity.

“Across the board I’m looking at upping our game in this particular area,” he said.

Barbara Baker, a commissioner on the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission that sets policy at the agency, welcomed Unsworth’s directives.

After the Wells Hatchery report, she had recommended an “assertive” new sexual harassment training program for staff that goes beyond current practice and said the agency should reinforce alternative ways for staffers to report problems in the office.

Baker said Tuesday that Unsworth promised “several, if not many, very good and progressive initiatives that we need to take.” She praised the confidential-channel idea, saying it could make it easier for employees to alert higher-ups about potential problems.

“I feel pretty comfortable that the steps outlined by the director are very positive, very strong, and now we just need to make sure that there’s follow through,” Baker said.

State Sen. Karen Keiser, the top Democrat in the Senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee and a critic of the behavior at Fish and Wildlife detailed in the reports, said she was “pleased to see” Unsworth’s memo.

Keiser called the agency’s plan “proactive at addressing some of the issues that have been brought forward” and said that having a resource group to aid women within the agency was “very intriguing.”

Keiser, like Baker, said proof the steps are working still is necessary.

“As we all know, it depends on how things are implemented to see how well they make change in culture,” she said. “Culture is not an easy thing to change.”

Unsworth didn’t offer fixed goals for tracking the progress of his plan, but he said officials are considering asking questions in the agency’s annual survey about inclusiveness, diversity and whether employees feel safe in reporting inappropriate behavior.

The agency then could compare surveys over time. Unsworth also suggested other internal surveys or tracking disciplinary actions by human resources.

Unsworth said improvements in hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce and preventing bad behavior would make the agency stronger and more successful.

“I’m certainly not resigned to believing that this is the way it’s going to be just because we’re a traditionally male-dominated ... business,” he said. “I think we can do better, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein