By Rob Port | North Dakota Watchdog
HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT: Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is accused by a former employee of inappropriate conduct that has created a hostile work environment.
BISMARCK, N.D. — Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring has a primary challenger, backed by an influential farm group, but that’s not his only concern of late. He’s also being accused by a former employee of creating a hostile work environment that has driven many employees away.
In an email to members of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, who is backing challenger Judy Estenson, Goehring admitted to one inappropriate comment made in the presence of some of his female staff.
“I had made a reference when there was several people around, I made a comment about ‘harem,’” he told Watchdog. “It was at a time when I had asked an employee to crack my back. I was having a couple of days when my back was out severely and we were at meetings out-of-state and I had severe headaches. I had asked an employee to crack my back. There were other people around, but it doesn’t matter what situation it was in. It was wrong and I apologize for it. I was just in a lot of pain at the time.”
But former Ag Department employee Katie Pinke says it was more than that one incident, and she says several employees of Goehring’s department have left over the years because of his behavior.
“I believe more than eight have left the ag department over the last few years,” she said in an interview with Watchdog.org. ”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.”
Pinke filed a complaint with state human resources officials over Goehring’s “harem” comments and an incident in which he asked a female employee to his hotel room to crack his back during a conference out of state in June 2012. “We were out of state and I made it very clear that was not going to happen,” she said. “He invited her to his hotel room to step on his back. I said that is not happening.”
According to documentation of the incident obtained from the state’s Risk Management Department, the woman went to Goehring’s room and walked on his back, but a male employee was also present. Braun later apologized to the woman over the incident, according to the records.
Pinke claims she asked the male employee to be in the room, but he doesn’t believe Goehring’s request had anything to do with flirtations or romance. “ I believe he was in pain and he didn’t see it as inappropriate,” Pinke said ”It was an uncomfortable situation, though. It caused all of us to feel uncomfortable.”
The woman told human resources officials in an interview she felt Goehring “doesn’t always handle himself appropriately with females.” As a result of the incident, Pinke moved the woman’s desk to another floor away from Goehring’s office. “Her office was right next to Commissioner Goehring’s. She felt uncomfortable,” said Pinke. “I felt it would break up the tension. I made that decision to improve the situation.”
Goehring also made what Pinke felt was an inappropriate comment shortly after she was hired. At a conference hosted by the North Dakota Game & Fish Department, Goehring was introducing division directors. According to Pinke, he introduced her as a “babe in the woods,” which promoted “snickering” from other attendees. “I looked it up the next day in the Urban Dictionary and I found that it was an inappropriate phrase,” she said.
But Pinke makes it clear that she doesn’t feel Goehring should be seen as a bad person.
“Ms. Pinke says she does not think (Goehring) is trying to sexually harass anyone, and that he is a good person,” wrote Human Resources Director Laurie Sterioti Hammeren in a Aug. 31, 2012, report on Pinke’s complaint. “Ms. Pinke says she does not think the Commissioner knows his behavior is inappropriate.”
Pinke stands by those comments, but says she felt compelled to report the conduct.
“I really wanted to stay through the legislative session, but it just became a hostile work environment,” she said of her decision to leave Goehring’s department after 14 months of employment. “I’m a mother of three and I want to make a better life for my children. I wanted to stand up for what was right.”
You can reach Rob Port at email@example.com.
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