(Wendy Galietta/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Cue the cries of wasteful spending and abuse.

“This sounds almost unbelievable to have this kind of waste reported when we are running trillions of dollars in debt,” said Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.), according to the Associated Press. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) sounded a similar note: “It is deeply troubling to learn that more than a quarter million dollars in hard earned taxpayer money was wasted so that certain GSA employees could congratulate themselves.”

They’re right, of course. But spending money to recognize good performance, on its own, is not necessarily wasteful. According to an article by Lisa Rein in the Washington Post, the event entertained 1,000 employees at two hotels and an additional 2,600 participating by webcast. If the spending bill for the event was $268,732, that would mean about $75 per employee.

Rewards for good performance—whether in the form of some kind of recognition, bonus, or extra time off—is a common cost for any organization. Government employees, like their private-sector peers, deserve some level of reward for a job well done. What’s wasteful, then, is not that the money was spent, but how.

Who thinks that sitting in a hotel ballroom and beating together drumsticks while a group leader chants “keep integrity, accountability to that bass beat” makes the average employee feel appreciated? How many people believe that getting a “time and temperature picture frame” makes workers feel more valued? Is spending a day in a Marriott ballroom with your co-workers really going to make you want to perform better?

Rein’s story quotes a GSA spokeswoman as stating “these events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations,” and that new leadership is thoroughly investigating agency spending. (My call to the GSA Friday morning for comment was not immediately returned.) (Update:) A GSA statement also notes that, “under the new GSA leadership, this event and type of spending is not tolerated. As of April 2012 all spending for events, including training conferences, leadership events, team building exercises, award ceremonies, were suspended.”

I’d guess most GSA staffers would have much preferred to get a $75 gift card to a local restaurant where they can take their families. Or, local managers could have taken their teams out for low-key lunches to celebrate their good performance without spending money on groan-inducing motivational entertainment or trinkets that will simply collect dust on a shelf.

And there’s plenty of ways to reward employees without spending real money at all. Give an afternoon off for a job well done. Take the time to help the best people solve their most frustrating workplace issues. Or give them an opportunity to take on new responsibilities that help them feel motivated and enthusiastic—and eager to continue doing a good job. True waste isn’t necessarily spending money to reward government employees. It’s spending it on rewards that may have very little effect.

More from On Leadership:

GSA spent $270,000 to entertain good employees

Chick-fil-A bites into debate on gay marriage

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life


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