Exit interviews show low morale for ND ag department employees


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

OFFICE POLITICS: A former employee accuses Agricluture Commissioner Doug Goehring of creating a hostile work environment, and department exit interviews indicate low morale. Goehring says it’s office politics, and that he’s given employees too much leeway.”

BISMARCK, N.D. — After a whistle blower accused state Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring of inappropriate behavior around female staff and creating a hostile working environment, exit interviews show that more than half the employees who left the Department of Agriculture complained about low morale there.

Goehring, who is running for another term this year, is being challenged for the North Dakota Republican Party endorsement by Judy Estenson, whose candidacy has the backing of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Before Estenson launched her campaign, Goehring admitted in an email to Farm Bureau members that he engaged in some inappropriate behavior around female subordinates. Further investigation by Watchdog.org showed that Goehring had referred to a group of his female staffers as his “harem” and had invited one female subordinate to his hotel room to crack his back during a business trip out of state.

The matter was investigated by North Dakota Human Resources and the Risk Management Department in 2012.

A former director in Goehring’s department, Katie Pinke, has accused Goehring of creating a “hostile work environment” that she claims inspired many ag department employees to depart state employment.

Kelly Wald, the employee who was asked to crack Goehring’s back, left her position after the incident. However, she’s since returned and, according to an exit interview with deputy commissioner Tom Bodine, said she had no problem with Goehring. According to the interview, Wald also said she never wanted her desk moved away from Goehring’s office, which was a claim Pinke had made.

Watchdog.org contacted Wald for comment, but she declined in an email.

In an interview, Estenson backed away from the controversy over Goehring’s behavior, though she wouldn’t say whether or not Goehring should resign.

When Wald was hired back it was into a new position, and she’s currently making 35 percent per month more than her previous pay rate.

“Kelly Wald was hired in 03/06/2012 her pay grade was a grade eight and her salary of $2850 was in the first quartile of the pay range,” Lindsay Schatz, an administrative officer in the agriculture department, said in an email. “Kelly Wald was rehired 09/09/2013 with a salary of $3850 which is in the first quartile in a higher pay grade.”

According to Schatz, the higher pay “reflects increased complexity in job duties and responsibilities.” She also notes Wald is making $150 less per month than the person who previously held that job.

Exit interviews show low morale

“I believe more than eight have left the ag department over the last few years,” Pinke said in a previous interview. “I think some of those are retirements, but there’s an underlying factor. It’s all off the record because nobody wants to feel the backlash. I reported it because I had to.”

There is some evidence to support Pinke’s claim of a difficult working environment. Since Jan. 1st, 2011, 28 employees have left the agriculture department, according to records obtained by Watchdog.org. Of those, 17 completed exit interviews and nine rated department morale as “fair” or “poor,” with the other two options on the interview form being “excellent” or “good.”

A common complaint in the exit interviews was communication.

Office politics

Reached for comment by telephone, Goehring blamed the morale on “inter-agency politics.” He also noted that with the “economy booming in North Dakota…retention and recruitment of employees” has been hard.

“People were chatting behind the scenes,” Goehring said when asked about the morale issue. Employees were “wanting to do this, wanting to do that, wanting to push agendas not in the best interest of the department.” He said some of his division directors were engaged in “empire building,” and suggested that some of the blame may have been his.

“Maybe I’m giving too much latitude to some of my division directors,” he said.

Pinke was a former division director in the agriculture department, and when asked if she was one of the directors he’s referring to, Goehring said yes. “She was certainly aggressive.”

“I don’t mind that they’re aggressive and they do things,” Goehring said. “But they don’t answer to the Legislature and to the people. I do.”

Asked if he felt his leadership was contributing to the low morale, Goehring had a one-word answer, “no.”

Estenson and Goehring will square off at the GOP state convention in early April in Minot. Goehring has said that if he doesn’t receive the party’s endorsement he will still run in the June primary ballot.

You can email Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org

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