Demand libido-free culture at state Fish and Wildlife

From the Editorial Board

Kansas City Star illustration

You may be disappointed, if not shocked, to know that the sexually charged workplace is alive and well in Washington. It’s particularly true in some male-dominated industries where crude jokes, lewd innuendo and offensive references to women are allowed to fester.

But when this kind of boorishness burrows into a taxpayer-funded agency, sending female employees fleeing for the exits, and when well-paid state managers are complicit with the crass culture, the whole thing is spattered with an extra layer of yuck.

Alpha-male banter and boys-will-be-boys bravado might never disappear from private fishing boats and hunting camps. But it’s completely unacceptable at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, an agency with a $437 million biennial budget where women comprise nearly one third of the roughly 1,900-employee workforce.

A double whammy of news about DFW’s out-of-control libido issues was reported this month in a collaboration involving The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio’s Northwest News Network.

The reporting team first disclosed a DFW workplace investigation that found a sexualized office atmosphere within the agency’s upper ranks. The 2015 probe was launched after Greg Schirato, a deputy assistant director, was accused of raping a co-worker. Schirato, who was fired and faces a criminal trial, denies the charge.

Sex talk and other inappropriate conduct were so pervasive that more than a dozen people appeared to be aware of it, many of them managers. The report also indicated employees weren’t comfortable speaking up.

DFW Deputy Director Joe Stohr suggested the scope of the impropriety was limited — a “small group of folks going beyond the norm,” he told reporters.

But Stohr’s words were belied by the next installment of the reporters’ work, which showed similarly ugly problems at a second location.

The story, published last week, revealed the recent firing of the four highest-ranking employees at a state fish hatchery in Okanogan County. An investigation found the men participated in or condoned sexual chitchat and other crude activity that was so routine it caused at least one female colleague to transfer from the Wells hatchery.

One of the fired men told investigators the exchanges amounted to harmless “locker room talk.” But we’ve never heard of a locker room that’s co-ed. And we certainly can’t imagine one where state employees get away with calling a woman Miss Piggy or suggesting that a co-worker could make good money prostituting herself on a fishing boat.

Of course, the expression “locker room talk” has been part of the national zeitgeist since Donald Trump’s infamous 2005 bus video came to light during last year’s election campaign.

That Trump would win the presidency, despite having bragged in the most vulgar terms about being sexually aggressive toward women, says something about our society’s peculiar permissiveness toward men behaving badly.

Washington officials must take strong measures to ensure it’s no longer permissible at Fish and Wildlife, or at any state agency.

DFW Director Jim Unsworth said he was “startled and taken aback” by the hatchery report; he’s shown a willingness to fire bad actors, and has made welcome overtures to build a harassment-free environment. Unsworth has been in the job only two years, arriving just as police were investigating the alleged Schirato rape, and deserves a chance to enact reforms.

Unsworth must work with the independent Fish and Wildlife Commission to hire more women and minorities up and down the organizational chart.

They must ensure the agency not only has a good sexual harassment policy, but also a robust cultural training program that touches every rural office and all 83 hatcheries. A clear message must be sent that some behaviors are objectively wrong, not just if a woman is courageous enough to complain.

State elected officials have a duty to lean on the agency, too — Gov. Jay Inslee through his authority to appoint commission members (only two of the nine are currently women), and the Legislature through the power of the purse.

Washington residents expect the government they pay for to reflect high standards of workplace decorum. They expect managers to lead by example, holding subordinates accountable to act professionally.

Above all, DFW employees must remember the agency’s mission is to preserve, protect and perpetuate Washington’s untamed wildlife species —not imitate them.