Report on Washington’s Office of Equity director: Racial bias, Avengers, and instructions from God

(The Center Square) – Dr. Karen Johnson was let go earlier this month as Washington state’s first director of the Office of Equity following an internal investigation finding she engaged in…

(The Center Square) – Dr. Karen Johnson was let go earlier this month as Washington state’s first director of the Office of Equity following an internal investigation finding she engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with employees that included micromanaging and “inappropriate or insensitive comments” that included ethnic remarks.

While Johnson’s last day on the job was May 17, a May 26 investigation report obtained by The Center Square revealed that an internal investigation had been launched in the fall in response to allegations made by employees working in the Office of Financial Management, or OFM, and the Office of Equity, or OOE. The investigation involved interviewing more than a dozen witnesses and 2,649 pages of documentation.

Investigators then initially interviewed Johnson in February and would have involved further interviews with Johnson, but she declined to participate.

“If this decision means that, by default, what has been said about me without me stands as fact, so be it,” she wrote in a letter to the law firm hired to conduct the investigation. “I must keep a clear conscious by not participating in this triangulating behavior, one of my non-negotiables. My truth is that I am more than willing to make myself available to meet with you and the person(s) bringing the allegation(s)/concern(s), as is my custom. Seeking reconciliation is more important to me than seeking to prove who is right. My destiny depends on this decision and destiny demands that I move forward.”

The report noted that the OOE experienced a turnover rate of 29% and that every person who resigned “attributed their decision to leave, at least in part, to a chaotic, overburdened, and disrespectful workplace culture created by Dr. Johnson.”

“Given the Agency’s mission and Dr. Johnson’s inspirational and motivational speaking style, many employees expected to work in a more open and collaborative environment,” the report stated. “Instead, witnesses described a command-and-control work environment with all decisions of any consequence requiring Dr. Johnson’s direct approval. Further, individuals described a work culture in which they were expected to work long hours, including early mornings, evenings, and weekends, even if it interfered with family time or worsened their health.”

Some of the specific allegations include:

  • Dr. Johnson accusing certain OFM employees of being paternalistic during a meeting, then getting “infuriated” and telling her staff to log off the meeting when Chief Financial Officer David Schumacher indicated that she did not know what the term meant and the dictionary definition was read.
  • A woman being told she could not have her hair braided because it was “cultural appropriation.”
  • Dr. Johnson “alluding” to employees that she received messages from God and telling specific people that “God had instructed her to hire them and that they would be disappointing God by not accepting the role.”
  • Dr. Johnson, who is Black, telling a Mexican employee that “this may take some time for me because I generally distrust Mexican people. Mexican people have the option of being White when it is convenient for them.”

In her Feb. 18 interview with the law firm, Dr. Johnson spent a third of that time “describing her professional background, including guiding Bible verses, leadership training, and work with veterans.” She also compared her team to the “Avengers operating out of ‘vibranium’ to bring equity and justice to the world,” alluding to a fictional mineral from the Marvel Comic Books series.

Dr. Johnson argued in the interview that “the staff she was given did not have the skill set needed to operate with emotional maturity. Her staff operated like they needed a boss to tell them what to do. They could not operate at the speed of trust with character and competence.”

According to the summary made by investigators of her interview, “Johnson’s family members consist of the Office of Financial Management (OFM), the Office of the Governor (“Governor’s Office”), and Johnson’s staff. With half of her family, she felt unheard, left out of the loop, and set up to fail. Information was being withheld. The other half of the family exercised their privilege to help her.”

Ultimately, the investigators concluded that she micromanaged staff and made unreasonable requests, as well as made inappropriate or insensitive comments.

The OOE was created in 2020.