Often performance audits geared to one agency in one state carry provide lessons for many other governments around the U.S.
That’s true of an unusual audit of workplace culture at the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the State of Washington. We’re calling it unusual because, unlike other performance audits that just touch on issues of workplace culture, in this instance that important topic was the sole reason for the report.
The audit by the Office of the Washington State Auditor, was sparked by two sexual harassment and sexual assault scandals that rocked the department and attracted widespread media attention in 2017. As a result, it was a surprise to us to find that the biggest problem the audit found was not sexual harassment.
The audit did find a good many other problems to worry about, concluding that sexual harassment was not a pervasive issue but was, in fact, the “least reported type of unprofessional behavior.” Of course, that may not hold true in other cities or states, but at least in Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, there were far more worrisome issues uncovered by the report.
The most commonly reported instances of unprofessional behavior related to employee bullying by supervisors. The extensive employee survey, plus group and individual interviews, also revealed retaliation against complainers, a lack of accountability, poor communication, discrimination, and ethical violations.
The damage to the agency's mission caused by poor workplace culture was nicely summed up by one employee. “I just can’t get anyone to listen. My morale is low. I don’t feel like doing more than the minimum. Why would I come here and work extra hard for this jerk who micromanages me, who shuts the door to my office and yells at me, why would I give that guy extra?”
An affiliated problem that surfaced in the audit was that complaints about unprofessional behavior often went unanswered, resulting in widespread frustration because of minimal follow-through.
The audit acknowledged that many improvements to the workplace environment had already taken place, including the hiring of new leadership, particularly in the human resources department.
Among improvements listed by the audit were increased training, the introduction of a new onboarding toolkit, a new hotline for anonymous complaints and improvements to workplace communication. Of course, change in perceptions can be very slow, with strong gains in workplace culture often taking three to five years, the audit said.
We started this blog post by noting how the audit could help other agencies in other states that worry about workplace culture, particularly in these tension-filled years. The problems encountered may be less extreme, but the recommendations provided by the audit are widely applicable.
Among the recommendations:
Develop a professional conduct policy, which clearly identifies the consequences for all types of unprofessional behavior
Ensure all supervisors receive required training on how to effectively manage personnel.
Implement a process, such as 360 evaluations, for employees to provide feedback on supervisor performance.
Establish mechanisms to facilitate regular communication up the chain of command
Establish clear policies and procedures for investigations so they are handled consistently and employees know what to expect.