Ag Department ex-staffer says exit interviews 'a sham'
BISMARCK — A former staffer involved in a controversy over what state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring has called “politically incorrect” comments he made in her presence says her exit interviews with Goehring and a department director were “a sham.”
Katie Pinke resigned last March as the department’s marketing and information division director.
Goehring and Ken Junkert, the department’s administrative services director, jointly conducted a face-to-face exit interview with Pinke on March 7 and filled out her exit interview questionnaire based on her answers — though Pinke said the completed questionnaires, which are now public record and were obtained by Forum News Service, don’t accurately reflect her answers.
“I said a lot about the communication and the problems that the commissioner was having, and there’s nothing negative about the commissioner in the exit interview,” Pinke, now working as a marketing consultant, said in a phone interview Thursday.
The questionnaires do mention lack of communication, leadership and mentoring as being among her reasons for leaving the department, but they don’t mention Goehring specifically.
Pinke said a human resources representative wasn’t in the room — which Goehring confirmed — and she didn’t sign off on what was written on the questionnaire.
As a division director, Pinke herself conducted three exit interviews during her 14 months in the job, records show. She said none involved a human resources representative.
“So, to me, those aren’t official,” she said. “They can be filled out after the employee has left.”
Deputy Commissioner Tom Bodine, who oversees the department’s day-to-day operations, said the department changed its exit interview process this past week, recognizing the flaw of not having a third party conduct the interview. He said a human resources liaison will now do the exit interviews and share the results with the employee’s supervisor and Bodine.
“I wish that was a policy before,” he said Thursday. “We just really carried on what other administrations had done.”
Goehring said he’s typically not involved in exit interviews and only took part in Pinke’s because she specifically requested it. When asked if having supervisors interview their subordinates might not lead to honest feedback, he said, “That’s a good point.”
“If there’s things we need to change about it … I’m open to those things,” he said.
Goehring faces a challenge for the Republican endorsement from Judy Estenson, who farms and ranches with her husband in Warwick, N.D. The North Dakota Farm Bureau is backing Estenson, saying it has lost confidence in Goehring, who formerly served as the organization’s president and vice president.
In a letter sent to supporters the day before Estenson announced her candidacy last week, Goehring said he had “spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner.”
Records from the state’s investigation into Goehring’s actions show that he introduced Pinke as a “babe in the woods” and referred to a group of women as a “harem” while at an out-of-state conference. Both incidents happened in 2012.
While on the out-of-state trip, Goehring also asked a female staffer, policy analyst Kelly Wald, to walk on his back in his hotel room to alleviate his back pain, though he has noted a male staffer also was present at the time.
Goehring said he has apologized for his actions and went through sensitivity training as suggested by the state’s Human Resource Management Services, which investigated the matter.
Wald told human resources that the hotel room incident made her feel awkward, that it wasn’t appropriate and that she was “worried that if someone talks to Commissioner Goehring there would be problems,” according to a summary of Wald’s interview. Her supervisor, Pinke, relocated her to a different floor, telling human resources she felt it was one way to protect Wald.
However, Wald’s exit interview with Bodine in December 2012 states, “I did not feel uncomfortable around the commissioner as stated by division director, and I did not want to be moved upstairs. It was a pleasure working for the commissioner.”
Pinke noted that the exit interview questionnaire was filled out by Bodine’s assistant, not Wald. Pinke’s own exit interview of Wald didn’t mention the commissioner.
Pinke said she and other division directors were hesitant to include anything critical of Goehring in exit interviews for fear of retaliation.
Bodine said that wasn’t the case.
“I promise you … that has never been top-down to division directors not to include anything negative,” he said.
In an interview Thursday, Wald said the responses on the questionnaires accurately reflect her answers. She also disagreed with a political blogger’s analysis of her statements as being contradictory, saying the HR report pertained to one isolated incident.
“And so any comments I made were about that specific incident, not about anything that happened or any work office environment after the fact,” she said. “I didn’t and I do not feel uncomfortable around the commissioner.”
Wald said that while the exit interview process didn’t strike her as odd at the time, “In hindsight, I completely understand and I am glad that they are going to be changing it to involve an HR individual who can do it as a non-involved third party.”
Bodine said the voluntary exit interviews have been “a hugely valuable tool” for identifying areas of the department in need of improvement, and he fears that publicizing the interviews may discourage employees from participating.
“I don’t know if we’ll get any more in the future just because of this,” he said.
Last year bad
Goehring was appointed agriculture commissioner in April 2009 and was elected to a four-year term in November 2010.
As of Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture had 94 employees — 61 permanent positions and 33 temporary positions.
During the four full years Goehring has spent in office, 43 employees in permanent positions have left the department: 11 in 2010, five in 2011, 12 in 2012 and 15 in 2013, according to the department and the state’s Human Resource Management Services.
That works out to a turnover rate of 16.4 percent in 2010, 7.5 percent in 2011, 18.8 percent in 2012 and 22.4 percent last year, based on the number of employees as of Aug. 1 of each year.
For perspective, a state analysis of turnover rates — with slightly differing numbers because it does not count employees who transferred to another job in state government — found that the Department of Human Services, the largest state agency with more than 2,100 classified employees, had a turnover rate of 10.2 percent in 2011 and 11.9 percent in 2012. The second-largest state agency, the Department of Transportation, had turnover rates of 9 percent and 8.1 percent in those years. In that same comparison, the Agriculture Department’s turnover rate was 6.3 percent in 2011 and 13.6 percent in 2012.
The turnover analysis for all departments in 2013 hasn’t been completed yet.
Of the 43 employees who left the Agriculture Department in the last four years, 18 were listed as leaving for new jobs. Eleven employees retired, seven transferred to another state job, four resigned and one was terminated. Two employees — Bodine and Wald — left and came back to the department.
Twenty-one of the 43 employees who left did exit interviews. Of the 22 who didn’t, 10 were retiring.
Among those who did exit interviews, six rated department morale as “poor,” four rated it as “fair,” nine as “good” and two as “excellent.” One employee didn’t complete that section.
Several employees commented on the need for better communication, both between administration and staff and between division directors. One employee sensed in-fighting among the directors, and another commented a year ago that “The culture of mistrust in the department is overwhelming,” according to her questionnaire.
No time to visit
Goehring attributed the department’s turnover rate in large part to employees leaving for better job opportunities arising from North Dakota’s booming economy. He and Bodine said it’s a credit to the quality of department employees that they’re being hired away.
Still, Goehring said, “there were some tensions between divisions” that also may have contributed to employees leaving. Asked whether Pinke contributed to that tension, he said, “I’d rather not say.”
Goehring said he has good division directors.
“Just sometimes you get some personality conflicts or some stress that exists in some of those divisions, and it kind of manifests itself in maybe morale being down in a few places,” he said, adding that can be true for any workplace. He noted the department brought in a consultant last fall to look at ways to improve communication.
Pinke said that while she and Goehring were on good terms when she left, the office was tense and he often didn’t have weekly meetings with division directors.
“We wouldn’t see or hear from him in weeks,” she said.
Asked if his leadership contributed to low morale, Goehring said, “I don’t know.”
“My job really isn’t within those four walls,” he said, adding that he depends on his division directors to manage staff. He said most of his business and meetings are with the public and other boards, commissions and committees.
He recalled that a few division directors mentioned they would like more access to him.
“That’s a bit tough at times because you’ve got all these places you’re running to and things that you’re doing,” he said. “I was always accessible by phone.”
“Sometimes people would just want to visit,” he added, “and I don’t have time to visit on a personal level.”