Washington state’s first equity director has been fired after an investigation found she made racist comments toward Hispanic colleagues and even shamed an employee.
Karen Johnson, the first director of the state’s Office of Equity, was fired from her post on May 17 after an independent investigation found that several of her employees had complained of her “biased and insensitive conduct “.
A Mexican employee told investigators how Johnson once said she had a “mistrust of Mexicans”, while another said the manager attacked her for her weight.
Johnson has denied the allegations and would consider filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against the state.
But when asked about his decision to fire Johnson, Governor Jay Inslee said ROI News 5 the office “needed leadership to be able to run the agency appropriately” and “we needed more leadership there.”
Karen Johnson, Washington’s first equity director, was fired from her post on May 17
She was replaced in her position by Megan Matthews, who serves as acting director.
As MFR Law Group PLLC investigated Johnson’s leadership at the new Equity Office, it uncovered reports from staff members who claimed Johnson was racist against Hispanics.
In one instance, she allegedly told a Mexican employee, “It may take a while for me because I’m generally wary of Mexicans.”
She then allegedly said, “Mexicans have the flexibility to be white when it suits them,” according to documents obtained by KING 5 News.
Another employee also said Johnson has an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to his Hispanic colleagues, often calling them out for not having “lived experiences” of racism.
Her management style was also mentioned in interviews with investigators, who found that she micromanaged staff, was disorganized and lacked proper structure and processes, and made unreasonable demands.
A female employee told investigators that Johnson once proclaimed that she “ruled with brass knuckles and a velvet glove”, which the staff member said was a “metaphor associated with white supremacy due to her violence”.
And others said she would stereotype on the basis of race and gender, with a white employee saying Johnson once told her not to braid her hair because it was “cultural appropriation”.
Another said Johnson attacked them because of their weight, asking: ‘You want to get married and have a family, don’t you?’ If so, you need to take care of yourself.
The survey also revealed that the Equity Office had an overall attrition rate of 29% since its inception.
Five employees resigned between 2022 and 2023, and all cited Johnson’s “chaotic, overworked and disrespectful work culture”.
She denied having any bias towards any of her employees and told KING 5 News that she remembered some of those conversations differently.
Former employees of the new Equity Office told investigators that Johnson (pictured) would make racist and otherwise ‘insensitive’ remarks to his employees
Washington Governor Jay Inslee tells KING 5 News the office lacks leadership under Johnson
But after speaking with these employees about their experiences, KTT reported, investigators also met with Johnson, during which she allegedly complained that “staff assigned to her lacked the skills to operate with emotional maturity.”
She also allegedly claimed they were “passive aggressive” and withheld information from him.
Johnson then allegedly declined to do a follow-up interview, saying it was “non-negotiable” and that she would not engage in “triangulation behavior” where she cannot resolve conflicts directly with employees.
Eventually, KING 5 reports, she was given the option of resigning or being fired — and chose termination.
Speaking about the decision, Inslee said, “We had some concerns at the agency about not being able to fill the positions.” We worried about not being able to use the budget.
He added that the office “needs leadership to be able to run the agency appropriately and we need more leadership there.”
Still, he said, “We appreciate that she started the agency.”
Inslee had signed legislation creating the office in April 2020 and named Johnson director the following year.
Inslee had signed legislation creating the office in April 2020 to work with other state agencies to increase access to “equitable opportunities to close opportunity gaps and reduce disparities,” as well as to develop a five-year equity plan.
He announced that Johnson would lead the new office a year later, praising her work as an equity and inclusion administrator for the state Department of Corrections.
She previously worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in roles ranging from Regional Equal Employment Opportunity Manager to Administrative Director of the James E Van Zandt VA Medical Center, and was Director of Tri-Love Ministries at Seattle.
In this position, she worked to ensure equitable access to resources and services for Black children and their families.
“Karen brings a wealth of experience working to transform local and state government systems to serve Washingtonians more equitably,” Inslee said in a statement. statement at the time.
“She has directed her entire career towards helping disadvantaged communities and institutional change for generations to come,” he noted, adding, “I am confident she will be an excellent and effective manager.”
A few months later, she told KING 5 News: ‘No sane black person… wants to lead this kind of work, while convincing white people that they want to do something they don’t intend to do. TO DO.”
But looking back, she called her tenure as a director “a moment in my life.”
“I received many emails from employees across the state saying, ‘Thanks to you, Dr. J, I know who I am. I’ve found my voice and I’m using it.”
“That’s what I’m most proud of.”
She also wrote on social media: “I am absolutely blessed to have gotten this job and I support the community I was trying to help in my tenure at the Equity Office.
‘I hope that [Inslee] continues to provide employees across the state with the opportunities they deserve and to continue the empowerment work to improve everyone’s life.