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Should Public Employees Go Bowling?

This article was written by in Career and Work, Taxes. 10 comments.

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.

Photo: Flickr

Published or updated February 5, 2013.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I’d agree with you here. Yes, it wasn’t the best time to plan a bowling trip with co-workers. It also wasn’t really journalism that TV “news” crew was executing.

When this sort of thing happens, I prefer to acknowledge it once and then forget it forever. I also hope TV “news” makes a comeback.

-Christian L. @ Smart Military money

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Since the beginning of time It seems governments fail step-by-step. They start, well intentioned and respectful of the “public trust”. As they move towards their own destruction they become arrogant, caring less about trust, and then on to omnipotent, caring nothing about those they govern. Corporation on the other hand don’t receive the kind of attention we see here until they take-on (willingly or unwillingly) a public trust. Had your company taken those taxpayers dollars they should have re-evaluated each and every activity, large or small, in light of the “trust” they assumed. That insurance company you spoke of was off-the-scale arrogant and they were severely hammered … and rightfully so.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

It’s a matter of context. Personally I’d have no complaint about public employees taking an annual or semi-annual half-day outing to have some fun together, IF I perceived that their department was getting the job done well–effectively and efficiently, with respect to spending taxpayers’ dollars. Private sector companies that permit, if not encourage, these sorts of activities clearly understand that there’s an immediate cost, but they apparently believe the financial benefit will, over time, outweigh the cost. I think the same calculation would apply to public employees, as long as the ‘fun’ is not overdone and the privilege abused.

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avatar 4 Anonymous
avatar 5 Anonymous

This was not the first time this station has caught public employees doing something other than working during working hours. It looks like a pattern of abuse even when it isn’t. Public employees need training and team building too. Whether this time is really training or abuse will be investigated. I like the fact that the news is doing this.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I think they should still have team building activities but I agree they should have been careful so close to the slush fund incident. Government employees have a different set of perks that public employees do. Many still have pensions that public company employees no longer have.

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avatar 7 Donna Freedman

When I worked at a newspaper, my department occasionally met for coffee and brainstorming off the premises. Getting out of the office really did seem to spur creativity, or at least make us feel less stressed about calls we were missing, etc.
Perhaps the very-occasional nature of this activity was the reason it succeeded. If we’d done it a lot, it might have become rote.
As for bowling for (public) dollars…It would be best to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Imagine being a paycheck-to-paycheck single parent or unemployed person who hears about this and thinks, “I wish someone would take ME bowling!” or, worse, “This is why I pay taxes? So some city employees can go have a good time?”

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avatar 8 Anonymous

As always, there are two aspects: appearances and the the facts. If the bowling started at, say, 4 p.m. and stretched into the early evening, it would be hard to criticize it. If it’s done entirely in working horse, that’s a horse of a different color.

A lot can be said for the handling of the affair. If the head of the department called a friendly newspaper and invited them along for, say, the latter part of the exercise, (hey, send your best team and come and challenge the ones who won on our outing) that would insulate them from criticism. If the TV station aired the undercover video, the newspaper would expose them for misreporting the situation.

There are always options and different ways of skinning a cat. The key is to be aware of the pitfalls of actions. Of course, that’s easier said than done. :)

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I see nothing wrong with government employees having ‘team building’ exercises. I also absolutely do not think these should be done on personal time. If my employer wants me to do a team building exercise then it should be on paid company time. I’d say that it should be voluntary if its on personal time but employers often say ‘voluntary’ when they mean ‘you’d better show up if you want to look good and if you know whats good for you’. So voluntary stuff by employers isn’t often really voluntary.

As long as this is a very rare occasion like 1 time a year I see nothing wrong with it. On the other hand if the government employees go bowling weekly then thats another thing. Nothing in this story says it was anything but an annual type thing.

I see little value in people getting irate and indignant that government employees somewhere spent 99 cents to rent bowling shoes and $5 on a round of bowling.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Hah, well, for the right-thinking folk, team building exercise is about a little fun. For other unfortunate souls, it’s code for “a dictatorial organizer & you’ll go to this thing I orchestrated and do what I want!”

But to the point: It’s difficult not to expect people to be responsible when paid with tax money. And generally we expect them to be more responsible than we might conversely expect ourselves to be. But I wouldn’t say that that restriction alone would make government work less appealing. Personally most of the people I know who work in the gov’t have remarked on the fact that it’s a time in grade system, not merit based so there’s no extrinsic motivation to excel if you are paid and rewarded exactly the same as your lazy coworker three doors over. By my value system, that’s far worse than not getting the occasional outing. After all, I used to work in a place that made you contribute money out of your pocket to have any kind of company sanctioned/organized party.

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