Enough with the lame leadership training conferences

Susan Walsh, File/Associated Press
Susan Walsh, File/Associated Press

The Internal Revenue Service is already facing scrutiny for targeting conservative groups, a revelation that has added to the White House's headaches and become a scandal feast for the GOP.

Now, the Associated Press is reporting that a Treasury Department's inspector general report, set to be released Tuesday, reveals another controversy for the agency: the IRS apparently spent roughly $50 million on at least 220 employee conferences between 2010 and 2012. One of the events, a gathering in August 2010 in Anaheim, Calif., included benefits for the 2,600 attendees such as baseball tickets and presidential suites, as well as spending on costly speakers, one of whom was paid $17,000 to talk about "leadership through art."

The most mortifying revelation may be a video produced for the Anaheim conference that features IRS managers getting scolded by an instructor while they learn how to line dance, an apparent attempt at that old standby of office humor: laughing at the boss. "Thank God they don't earn their living this way," one woman says, pointing at the dancing employees. "They don't pay me enough to do this," another says.

The Post's Ed O'Keefe reported over the weekend that the line dancing video, combined with another training video that parodied the "Star Trek" franchise, cost at least $60,000 to produce, according to estimates from the audit.

The IRS told the Associated Press that spending on large conferences has fallen from $37.6 million in the 2010 fiscal year to $4.9 million last year. In a statement, new acting commissioner Danny Werfel called the conference "an unfortunate vestige from a prior era" and noted that "many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have occurred," even if "there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting," according to the AP.

Perhaps there were "legitimate reasons" for holding such employee gatherings, from team building to rewarding employees for a job well done. It's understandable that there are occasional needs for organizations as large as the IRS to get together on a national scale. And however cringe-worthy it may be, I get that watching managers do a line dance is supposed to bring everyone together in some sort of office version of schadenfreude.

But there are other ways to build relationships and recognize talented workers that don't involve overpaid speakers and potentially embarrassing presidential suites in fancy conference hotels. Whenever possible, leaders should hold local day-long opportunities for people to take time out of their day-to-day jobs rather than making them travel. Whatever organizational benefit there may be in getting people together for several-day national confabs is often undermined by the stress employees endure being away from their families and making up work when they return.

And if you want to teach leadership, you don't need art. You don't need magicians, or bicycles, or mind readers or clowns. Give people the chance to learn and grow by working on big important, agency-wide issues with the best leaders in the organization. Give them time to volunteer their skills to local nonprofits run by great people. To teach leadership, you simply need to give people hands-on opportunities to do it themselves and, better yet, people who can set an example.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

May the GSA resignation serve as warning to all leaders considering lame training conferences

NOAA retracts ad for magician at leadership conference

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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