Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Latest IRS Scandal: Do Good Management Practices Apply Only To People We Like?

Right now, on my desk, I've got a notice saying I need to pay the IRS nearly $2,000. The tax man is not my favorite guy right now - I don't think anyone ever likes to pay taxes.

That being said, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the coverage surrounding the IRS conference expenditures. The agency has reportedly spent $50 million dollars for 220 conferences, over 2 years. That works out to roughly $227,000 per conference, although some conferences cost far more (one is reportedly $4 million!) and some obviously less. The IRS has 106,000 employees, according to Wikipedia.

One piece of information I haven't seen so far is how much is spent on conferences by other government agencies of comparable size over a similar time period. Numbers without context aren't tremendously helpful. I would like to see an agency-by-agency breakout of this information, and I bet other people would too. Just saying "Oh, they spent $50 million!" is good for whipping up the emotion - $50 million being spent by people you don't like just sounds terrible - but we can't forget that ALL of the money the gov't spends is taxpayer money; not just that spent by the IRS.

But that's not even the biggest part of the problem. The troublesome bit is the outrage leveled at the fact that the IRS employees were participating in team building exercises. Some of these exercises were fun! They involved dancing! People were visibly smiling and having a good time!

It would be interesting to have performance assessments of the IRS employees before and after these conferences, both self-assessments and objective third party assessments. Because here's the thing: team building exercises, morale boosting drills and the like are all designed to improve performance. They're a tacit acknowledgement that all work is performed by people, and people have complex emotional and psychological needs. When you take steps to meet those emotional and psychological needs, your employees perform better. This is not rocket science. This is Management 101.

For example, let's look at police officers. Due to the nature of their work, police officers are regularly exposed to traumatic events. That's why good police departments make sure there's counseling & support services available for their teams. Healthy, strong bonds between police officers not only provide for better law enforcement, they keep every one safer.

IRS employees are probably among the most hated professionals in the country. They have a thankless task that is complicated and ever changing. The tax code is more that 73,000 pages long. And budget crunches (believe it or not in the context of this story)mean that there are fewer employees doing more and more work. This is not a recipe designed to deliver top performance. In fact it is the opposite: put people in a difficult, high-stress job that everyone hates them for having.

Every single IRS employee is a person. Is it such a stretch to see that these people might need some emotional support? That their morale might be impacted by having everyone hate them?

If we agree that the IRS employee teams are performing a needed function, aren't these employees entitled to the same management tools and techniques people in other industries use to get top performance from their teams? Or is good management something we reserve only for the people we like?

We can argue about the amount of money spent all day, and somewhere, someone probably is. But let's stop the discussion about whether or not it's appropriate that the IRS employees have access to the type of team building, morale building exercises that are common practice to provide employee support and boost performance in many industries. People who are treated well do better work. Retaining skilled IRS employees is always going to be more cost-effective than attracting and training new employees. If that takes a little dancing and some cupcakes, so be it.

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