Erica Prather was trying on her wedding dress when she learned she was about to get fired.
It was a Friday in February, and Prather — a Tucson, Ariz.-based organizer with Defenders of Wildlife — had taken the day off to get her dress fitted in Kansas. Her mom snapped her picture as Prather looked down at the text from her union representative: She wouldn’t have her job when she got home.
Later that day she got an email making it official, Prather said. She asked if she could go into her Tucson office to pick up her things, but she was told, “You can’t. We’ve already had the locks changed,” she told WEBICNEWS’s E&E News in a recent interview.
Prather is one of 123 people who have quit or been fired from the conservation group since early 2019, when the organization had about 135 staffers, according to data compiled by the Defenders employee union that formed last year. That includes 30 people who have already left in 2022, the union said. Another four people plan to depart in the coming weeks, union representatives said.
The environmental group — widely known for its work to protect wolves and other wild animals — also has a reputation as a terrible place to work.
Staffers referred to it as a “nightmare” workplace and a “motorized revolving door.” Multiple current staffers said they’re looking for new jobs. And one current employee said, “I don’t know anyone who’s happy at Defenders.”
E&E News spoke to 23 current and former Defenders employees for this story, ranging from senior managers to more junior staffers. Most of them were granted anonymity because they fear professional retaliation for speaking candidly about their concerns with Defenders’ workplace culture.
They broadly described a workplace where turnover is rampant, questioning leadership isn’t tolerated, staff don’t feel like they’re paid fairly and employees worry they might be fired without notice. Nearly all of them said the organization’s management issues are affecting its ability to function.
Current and former staff blame Defenders CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark for setting the tone and establishing a “culture of fear” within the organization. Upsetting Clark over even minor issues, they say, can result in getting fired.
Clark, 64, has been at the group’s helm since 2011. She worked for the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army as a wildlife biologist before she was picked by President Bill Clinton to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997.
One former Defenders employee who worked in leadership had considered Clark a mentor and thought they had a close relationship. But “she will turn on a dime on you,” that person said. “You’ll go from having reviews that are spectacular to being out the door.”
That person kept an empty box in the corner of their office in case they were fired without warning and needed to pack quickly. That person saw other people get fired and usually they were “escorted out immediately.” The box ultimately came in handy when that employee was fired over what they described as a disagreement over a “trivial product issue.”
Staffers say it’s the kind of environment they might expect in the cutthroat corporate world — not at a nonprofit where idealists and animal rights advocates take jobs because they want to help save species like black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls.
Clark declined E&E News’ request for an interview. Defenders did not answer a list of questions about turnover, morale and specific concerns detailed by current and former staff.
Rachel Brittin, the group’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email that, “as a policy, we do not share personal information about individual staff members or HR actions. Many of your questions cannot be answered without divulging personal information about current and former staff.”
Defenders “takes staff concerns seriously and maintains processes and policies to uphold our high standards of workplace fairness while respecting the privacy of our current and former staff,” according to Brittin’s emailed statement.
“We recognize that, like many organizations across the country, there is more work to do in improving and enhancing our workplace,” the statement said. “We will continue to listen to our staff’s concerns, seek to enhance our workplace and advance Defenders’ important conservation mission.”