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The IRS, Professional Development and Taxpayer Dollars

The IRS is SOL these days because of money they spent on a conference back in 2010. While there should concern over taxpayers money, I believe we don’t always understand the value of investing in the organization by investing in the employees.

According to a Washington Post article, the IRS spent $4.1 million dollars to fly managers to California for a conference on leadership. Once there, the agency paid for free receptions, attendee gifts and received free thumb drives from the National Security Administration. OK, I made that last part up.

Additionally, they paid $10,000 for a speaker to teach managers about “happiness.” Obviously, as a humorist and speaker, this item piqued my curiosity.

As a taxpayer, I understand how irritating it is to know that the agency that financially sucks us dry appears to be spending money irresponsibly. But let’s not throw the child deduction out with the bathwater. The real issue is not just what they’re spending but how they’re spending it.

Employees Laughing at WorkAn organization’s greatest resource is their employees. These are the people who carry out the mission of the organization and in order for them to do that efficiently and effectively, they must be trained and developed.  About twenty years ago, I heard the CEO of Corning say that Corning employees are expected to spend 10% of their time in professional development. Corning recognized that developing employees leads to a better company. While many organizations don’t understand this, most professional certifications and licenses (nursing, medicine, accountants, etc.) require continuing education to maintain their certifications. This assures that professionals keep up with changing technology and work practices.

The key distinction here is that there is a difference between wasteful spending and investing in employees. An expensive pen is a nice gift but does not necessarily make an employee more effective. A fancy meal is wonderful but is not professional development. And a room in an expensive hotel is very comfortable but won’t lead to a better bottom line unless you raid the mini bar and in a Reeces-and-Pringles-induced rush, come up with a game changing business idea – but that’s rare.

However, a speaker on workplace happiness can dramatically change the work environment.

The speaker referenced at the IRS conference is a Harvard professor and one of the foremost authorities on happiness and workplace culture. He is not some fly-by-night, touch-feely speaker who tells people, “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, he shares empirical research on practical ways to make our lives and work better.

We know from the research that, in general, happy employees do better work. You don’t need to look further than Zappos or Southwest Airlines to understand this concept. But “happiness” can be an elusive concept that escapes most employers. A speaker or trainer who can show an organization how to implement specific practices that lead to a healthy and more productive culture could be worth their weight in gold…or even $10,000.

As a taxpayer, I want the IRS’s employees to be both competent and content. The competence makes them more effective and the contentedness makes them easier to deal with when I call to tell them that my tax return check is in the mail because my dog at the first one, and the second one, and the third one.

So, what’s the solution to the IRS’s leadership conference dilemma?

Many people would like to ban all government spending on professional development. Instead, I would suggest we support the smart use of employee development by curtailing unnecessary expenses while making the education as effective as possible. I want my taxes to go towards better government which means a better government employee.

Every organization should invest in their people. Developing employees makes for better workplaces. Better workplaces make for more successful organizations.

And that just adds up…even for the IRS.

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