Whether you’re watching a twenty-four hour news channel, the local news, or national news “magazine” programs like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, the program directors need to be concerned about ratings. Television ratings are everything to those who work in this industry. If you can’t get an audience to watch a program, there are no eyes for potential advertisers to reach. Without advertisers buying the broadcast time between news segments, the network can’t produce enough revenue to justify operating the program and paying the salaries of anchors and correspondents.
While I was in California, a local news station produced an exclusive investigative report featuring hidden cameras, blurred faces, and a correspondent chasing down perpetrators with the camera operator jogging to keep up. The employees of a city’s Parks and Recreation Department, a state government agency funded by income received from taxes, were spotted bowling together during the work day. This comes after the same department was caught keeping a $54 million slush fund while threatening to cut public programs due to a lack of resources.
The timing was bad, obviously. After a $54 million scandal, it’s best to keep a low profile and avoid appearing on the news for any reason. And if you and your coworkers are going to participate in a team-building exercise, try to do it on personal time. There were some mistakes in judgment by those who planned this trip.
Anyone who’s ever worked in a group knows that “team-building exercise” is simply a code-name for having some fun outside of the office. In many cases, team-building exercises do in fact, particularly over the long term, help build better cohesion and cooperation within working groups. One day many years ago, when I was working for a major financial corporation, we used bowling for a team-building exercise. I was relatively new to the team, and it helped me socialize with my new coworkers. Towards the end of the work day and stretching into what would be considered personal time in a typical nine-to-five situation, we boarded a shuttle van and played a game or two at the local bowling alley.
The local news wasn’t there, chasing us with microphones, asking us why we were spending our time and shareholders’ money — the company had recently gone public — on a frivolous non-work activity.
Even if my company had been involved in some kind of financial scandal and needed to project a better image, or if like other companies in the same industry, had received taxpayer assistance in the form of Great Recession bailouts, would the company be criticized for a small bowling outing? Scale is important — one insurance company receiving bailout money a few years ago held an expensive retreat for executives, with the price tag in the millions of dollars. Bowling for about twenty mid-level employees seems immaterial in comparison.
A company with private shareholders, accounting their expenses to no one but a select group of investors, can get away with spending whatever they want on team-building exercises, which can actually work to increase productivity and effectiveness. Public companies that report their finances to the SEC or other regulators can still do what they want but have to answer to analysts and shareholders, many of whom understand that it’s fine to spend some money on expenses for employees.
Public organizations, those whose employees are paid with money collected via taxes rather than shareholder money, are held to tougher scrutiny. Everyone wants to know that tax dollars are being put to good use. A weekend conference in another city and a bowling trip during the work day don’t seem to be good uses of taxpayer money, but if these same events occurred at a public company, no one would care.
Should state or other government employees have the same kind of work benefits as those in the private sector when the funding comes from taxpayers? If not, why would anyone want to work for a government agency? This particular Parks and Recreation Department would have done better to avoid the public eye following the issue surrounding the slush fund, but to what extent? The employees were required to travel for the weekend — to work on the weekend — for a conference and wanted to take a few hours to go bowling.
Is bowling really such a big deal? It is when a local station can turn it into an investigative report with the added drama of correspondents shoving microphones and cameras in the faces of people who don’t want to be a television soundbite. The television station probably spent more money covering the issue than the Parks and Recreation Department spent organizing the incident in question.