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Assessing the Workplace Culture at the Department of Fish and Wildlife

September 13, 2021 Download this report as a PDF »

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) is responsible for conserving native fish and wildlife and their habitat. DFW’s activities also support sustainable fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreational opportunities for Washington residents and visitors.

The Office of the Washington State Auditor initiated this audit in response to concerns voiced by legislators and other stakeholders. Their concerns included:

  • Past incidents of sexual harassment
  • Inconsistencies in the way DFW resolved employee complaints
  • Practices related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Taken together, these concerns suggested problems might exist within DFW’s workplace culture.

This audit sought to understand the agency’s current workplace culture and the issues that informed staff opinions. It also looked for ways agency leaders can promote a more respectful and productive workplace to enable DFW to better serve the public.

It found employee concerns about sexual harassment much less prevalent than concerns about other issues of poor workplace behavior. Although the agency has made strides in improving workplace culture, the audit found leadership could do more to ensure those improvements work.

Read a summary of the report.

 Report Credits Report Number 1028973

Key results

The audit sought views and voices of DFW employees by conducting both quantitative and qualitative research. The goal was to learn firsthand what employees at DFW thought and felt about their workplace. The responses staff offered showed they felt strongly about their workplace – both positively and negatively.

  • Many have strong positive views related to meaningful work, camaraderie and confidence in direct supervisors
  • Although sexual harassment was the agency’s highest profile problem, survey responses indicated it is not a pervasive issue
  • Other types of unprofessional behavior drive their less-positive views of the agency’s culture
  • Some staff perceived a lack of accountability for poor behavior
  • Communication challenges driven by DFW’s structure harm morale

DFW officials described the many steps taken to improve workplace culture. Nevertheless, the audit found leadership can do more to gain staff confidence and ensure long-term success of their initiatives.

Background

This assessment of workplace culture is the first performance audit of its kind in the state. Auditors spoke with more than 220 DFW employees in every region and program across the state. We conducted in-person group and individual interviews, as well as job shadows, to get their perspective on the workplace culture at the agency. This included meeting with management teams in each region. We also set up an audit phone line open to all DFW employees.

After listening to their positive comments and workplace concerns, we conducted an all-agency survey to understand how many people shared these views. The survey had a 45 percent response rate, with feedback gathered from more than 820 of DFWs roughly 1,800 employees.

The analysis offered insights into employee perceptions of colleagues, managers and agency leadership, both positive and negative. You can explore the results in great detail in appendices of the published report.

Positive views: Work and team

When we asked staff to describe aspects of working at DFW that they considered most positive, the answers were broadly similar. They listed the meaningful work they do, the camaraderie they share with their team, and their confidence in direct supervisors.

  • More than 75 percent had a positive view of the culture on their teams
  • Nearly 90 percent of survey respondents said they were passionate about the issues they work on

A strong sense of shared purpose with their colleagues drove these strong positive views. In turn, this led to effective teamwork and mutual support for each other. Most respondents also held a positive view of their direct supervisor as part of their team.

Workplace issues drive less positive views

Although sexual harassment was DFW’s highest profile problem, it was the least-reported type of unprofessional behavior. Only 2 percent of all survey respondents, and 4 percent of female respondents, said they had experienced sexual comments or unwanted sexual advances in the last year.

DFW officials said that after high-profile incidents in the past, addressing this type of behavior has been an agency priority. The survey responses likely reflect the steps the agency has taken in recent years to prevent it from happening again. Nonetheless, any instances of sexual harassment indicate room for improvement.

However, survey responses raised a number of other, more prevalent, issues. The agency will need to focus on these issues in addition to continuing its efforts to address sexual harassment.

Unprofessional behavior a concern

The percentage of positive comments dropped when we asked employees for their views of overall agency culture. Although most DFW employees enjoyed their work, coworkers and immediate supervisor, many expressed dissatisfaction with other aspects of the workplace. Not quite half (48 percent) of respondents held positive views of workplace culture at the agency level.

Our analysis of the results of conversations and surveys revealed several issues that were more pervasive than complaints around sexual harassment. Staff raised issues that fell into three broad categories:
  • Unprofessional behavior

  • A perceived lack of accountability for that behavior

  • Communication issues

Although people discussed several other workplace culture concerns with us, we focused on these three factors in our report because:
  • They were prominent in both the employee survey and discussions with staff

  • They were raised by employees in every region and program

We discuss accountability and communication issues in more depth in the Results section of our published report.

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Workplace culture suffers as a result

By far the most prevalent types of unprofessional behavior were aggression and bullying. About 20 percent of survey participants experienced it; 30 percent said they witnessed it. Many survey participants said they experienced some form of aggressive behavior at least monthly, if not more often.

At least 10 percent of respondents reported other types of unprofessional behavior. This included retaliation, gender discrimination, and legal or ethical violations being committed within the agency. Reports of such behaviors came from every program and region.

DFW employees who experienced such behaviors described a variety of consequences, such as:

  • Low morale, reduced motivation and productivity at work
  • Emotional and physical distress, including feeling disappointed or embarrassed at working for DFW
  • High staff turnover

Research shows the negative atmosphere in a work group can also affect the wider organization. This can result in overall reduced productivity, loss of reputation for the agency, and the inability to recruit or retain good employees.

Improvements already under way

The current agency director joined DFW in August 2018, bringing a commitment to improve workplace culture through new initiatives and investments. In addition, DFW managers have acknowledged that various challenges have impaired the agency’s culture.

The agency has already taken steps to address some of the issues raised by our respondents. It has put numerous cultural improvement initiatives into action, such as:

  • Implemented an anonymous reporting hotline
  • Hired a new HR director
  • Established a Diversity Advisory Committee and hired a DEI manager
  • Established core agency values and uses them during employee evaluations

DFW officials introduced many of these activities in 2019 or afterwards. Because they had only recently been enacted, and because DFW lacked performance metrics for them, we could not assess their effectiveness.

Recommendations

The audit made recommendations in three key areas:

First, to ensure current and future workplace culture improvement initiatives succeed:

  • Review and update current initiatives to incorporate leading practices such as performance metrics, risk assessment, and a clear communication plan to staff
  • Incorporate these leading practices in all future improvement initiatives

Second, to help the agency overcome silos and improve communication:

  • Expand opportunities for employees to interact with employees from other programs/regions and different levels of management
  • Create controls to ensure employees receive and know how to access important information
  • Establish mechanisms to facilitate regular communication up the chain of command

Third, to ensure managers and staff consistently address unprofessional behavior:

  • Develop a professional conduct policy which clearly identifies the consequences for unprofessional behavior
  • Ensure supervisors receive required personnel training
  • Implement a process for staff to provide feedback on supervisors
  • Establish clear policies and procedures that outline the investigation process of reports