Beware of Incentives: When Good Intentions Go Wrong


Icy sidewalk

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

For years, organizational leaders have used incentives to try and motivate safety. The rationale is that providing financial rewards for not getting hurt will get employees to “try harder” to stay safe. In reality, it simply encourages non-reporting which is why OSHA now frowns upon outcome-based incentives. It can also create other problems.
As an example, we worked with a Canadian company where a woman slipped on the ice outside of her building in front of a group of coworkers. The person in charge of clearing the ice hadn’t done it. In addition to her embarrassment, the woman sustained a tailbone injury that had to be reported. Also, some of her coworkers were angry because this injury cost them their monthly $75 gift card they received when no injuries occurred in their area.

Fortunately, most leaders using incentives have moved to process-based rewards. This brings up four important considerations:
1. Proactive, process-based incentives are substantially better than those that are outcome-based.
2. Process-based incentives, when used correctly, can be effective.
3. There are pitfalls with process-based incentives too.
4. The best “incentive” is genuine appreciation and ongoing recognition.

Cautions with Process-Based Incentives


Employees may pencil whip close call forms, behavioral observations and safety suggestions if they’re getting rewards for the number of cards they fill out. Process-based incentives, if used, should focus on the quality of efforts instead of quantity (or quotas). Second, there is a hidden problem rarely discussed before implementing incentives. Once you’ve started an incentive program, it can become an entitlement.

Empirical research shows that individuals intrinsically motivated to perform an activity will be less motivated to do it if they get paid for it and those payments stop (Deci & Ryan, 1985). In one of these experiments, 24 college students were asked to put together puzzles in several timed sessions. Half of them received payment for this task and half did not. Students had free time between sessions to do whatever they wanted (continue work on the puzzles, read magazines, watch TV etc.). Students who were paid to do the puzzles (after the first session) worked harder on them during the first break than those who didn’t. However, these students did not get paid after the next session. As a result, their efforts on the puzzles dropped dramatically in the final session compared to the non-paid group and their own efforts before getting paid. In other words, when they no longer got paid for doing the puzzles, their motivation to complete them was greatly diminished. This can happen with your incentive programs especially when they are outcome based (i.e., rewards for no injuries). Employees may quit doing proactive safety efforts if the rewards they were getting for doing them go away.

Tips for Using Process-Based Incentives


Small tokens of appreciation with safety themes like fire extinguishers and first aid kits can be an effective way for leaders to reinforce safety. These are often given after an employee provides high quality suggestions, demonstrates exceptional safety behaviors (e.g., cleaning up a spill after a shift someone else created), and regularly cautioning coworkers about at-risk behavior. Surprise rewards (e.g., safety fairs with invited families, pizza parties) for safety achievements can also be effective. Here are two examples of effective process-based incentives:
• One Virginia company that built bearings for cars took money they had budgeted to purchase safety signs and gave it to employees through a poster design contest. Specifically, the site shut down all operations for two hours and brought in all employees to create their own safety posters. Prizes were given out for first ($100), second ($50) and third place ($25) as voted on by employees. Employees were given flip chart pages and markers/crayons to design their posters and were allowed to make as many posters as they wanted to for the contest. In the end, the winning employee was a maintenance worker who drew Forrest Gump running down the road wearing safety glasses (and other PPE) under the caption, “Safety IS as Safety DOES.” Completed posters were hung around the facility and were highly effective in getting employees’ attention. Although the monetary amounts were small, the recognition and attention provided for employees’ creativity and efforts were greatly appreciated.
• Another organization developed safety champion stickers for employees. When leaders or fellow employees observed especially safe actions, they provided the employee a sticker which they put on their hard hats. This was designed to replicate the college football practice of putting team logo stickers on helmets following exceptional plays. A number of employees really appreciated these stickers and some had their hard hats full of stickers as a show of their own commitment to safety.

The Best Incentive


Sincere, one-on-one recognition and appreciation for working safely is the best “incentive.” Empirical research shows:
• 67% of employees whose managers focused on their strengths were fully engaged in their work, as compared to only 31% of employees whose managers focused on their weaknesses (Gallup, 2018).
• Providing more positive feedback and recognition increases the measured frequency of safety behaviors and improves safety culture (Fogas et al., 2011, Hoffmeister et al., 2013, Zohar and Lura, 2003).
• Employees who report feeling valued by their employer are 93% more likely to demonstrate discretionary effort on the job (APA Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, 2012).

The current buzzword in the safety space is “employee engagement.” Genuine recognition is one of the most powerful, and underutilized, ways to increase this engagement. Recognition and appreciation should be the default reward that leaders use to motivate safe work practices. Ongoing recognition improves morale and increases the likelihood employees will engage in future prosocial behaviors. In other words, try using more genuine recognition to increase engagement and prevent SIFs. It’s the best incentive of all.

At Propulo, we help leaders develop formal and informal means to promote safe work practices through respect, recognition and appreciation.