One man at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife faces charges of raping a co-worker after hours. That alone is terrible, but the agency has had much deeper problems that include an overly sexualized workplace, according to an outside investigation.
Clearly events that came to a head in 2015 showed that big changes in the culture at the 1,900-employee agency were needed.
Why, after all, did agency employees not speak up about an undercurrent of sexual harassment at DFW until after the rape allegation?
The allegation led to a criminal charges against one of the agency’s top staffers who still faces trial for second-degree rape and burglary.
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One answer is that victims of harassment often feel shame. But Fish and Wildlife also has a culture steeped in a male world of fishing and hunting, and this might have left some female workers at DFW feeling marginalized. The Fish and Wildlife Commission that oversees the department should look closer to see why women may feel discouraged from reporting problems.
The rape allegation deals with specific conduct by a former deputy assistant division chief, Greg Schirato. The rape allegedly occurred after a Christmas party he attended with other employees in December 2014. The trial, once scheduled for August — has been delayed.
A few sexual harassment claims came to light after the rape led agency leaders to hire the MFR Law Group to investigate. MFR found evidence of a sexualized culture with agency higher-ups who tolerated sexually charged language and banter inappropriate for a workplace. The investigators also collected statements from multiple witnesses about Schirato’s inappropriate banter and discussions of sex at work.
The agency’s deputy director, Joe Stohr, recently downplayed the breadth of the problem in the agency. Stohr suggested to reporters with The Olympian, News Tribune and Northwest News Network that the misconduct was limited to “a small group of folks going beyond the norm.” Stohr also noted it can be hard to get anyone but 50-year-old men for roles in fisheries and hunting.
Even if Stohr’s claim of isolated trouble is true, it does not excuse the agency’s top leadership that let a more relaxed “family” atmosphere develop that undermined women in the workplace.
To the agency’s credit, Stohr says policies on sexual harassment have been reinforced and statements about policy were sent to employees after the rape allegations. The agency also has a new director, Jim Unsworth, who was hired after the rape allegations were under investigation. Unsworth has made counseling to staffers available through SafePlace.
But it’s not clear the leaders of the divided agency have done enough to break from past practice and assure a harassment-free workplace for women and men.
We ordinarily look to Gov. Jay Inslee to give direction to an agency that has had turmoil. But Fish and Wildlife is run by an independent commission that hires the director and sets policy, so Inslee cannot summarily reach into the agency to make strong-armed changes.
The governor does appoint commissioners and he should apply pressure to his own appointees and those appointed by his predecessor.
Besides stopping the sexual banter that an independent agency investigator found, it is important to change the way women are treated in the agency. Leaders should act to bring more women staffers into influential, decision-making roles at high levels of the male-oriented agency.
And the commission should plan follow-up investigations that examine any new allegations that might arise during the trial.