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"I'll Strangle You": Fixing A Bullying Workplace Culture

In our weekly exploration of state and local government audits, we often see workplace culture coming up as an important side issue which affects turnover, employee engagement and resident services. It is rare, however, for workplace culture to be the main topic of an audit, as it was in a September performance audit of Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The audit was sparked by legislative concern about sexual harassment charges that emerged several years ago, but there were also reports of employee bullying, unprofessional behavior, and a high level of turnover, particularly within human resources. One example from the report: An employee told auditors that he witnessed an employee screaming at another employee. “This person said basically, ’I’ll strangle you,’ screaming and yelling at another employee in the building. The whole thing was handled with ‘Just go tell them you’re sorry and it will be fine.’ Then the person was promoted into a manager position.”

When auditors delved into the department’s problems, it didn’t surface the kinds of sexual harassment problems that sparked the audit, but it did hear complaints about gender discrimination, bullying and a frustrating lack of action in response to employee or supervisor bad behavior. “Complaints are made, and nothing comes of it,” one employee told auditors in a group interview.

We bring all this up, not to beat up on Fish & Wildlife, as the department has already been working on fixes to its work environment. The human resources unit, which was the focus of much of the trouble, has a new director with surveys showing considerable improvement – 67 percent of HR Department employees said their agency was a great place to work in 2020, for example, compared with 38 percent in 2019.

Still, the audit makes it clear that workplace culture can be slow to evolve and urges the department to persist in its efforts to make the important changes that are still needed. Since other departments in other states and local governments can also benefit from the Washington State Auditor’s recommendations, we’re repeating a handful of them here, in abbreviated form:

1. “Develop a professional conduct policy, which clearly identifies the consequences for all types of unprofessional behavior.”

2. “Ensure all supervisors receive required training on how to effectively manage personnel, including how to respond to incidents of unprofessional behavior.

3. “Implement a process, such as 360 evaluations, for employees to provide feedback on their supervisors’ behavior and effectiveness.

4. “Outline the investigation process of reports so investigations are handled in a consistent manner and employees know what to expect.”

To see the audit, in full, click here.


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