Rethinking incentives

Even in good times, incentive programs (especially in safety), have been rife with controversy and confusion. Once a decision has been made to use a “tangible” incentive program, obstacles arise in the areas of goal-setting, implementation and administration. And all too often these programs are used as a panacea or are substituted for sound safety processes.

In these challenging economic times, it is especially important to identify the types of incentives that can be used effectively and economically, and to develop an understanding of how incentives can be infused into a safety process.

Defining your terms

Incentive is defined as, “something that encourages somebody to action; something that encourages or motivates somebody to do something.”1

There are essentially three types of incentives:

1. Tangibles – material rewards, money, gifts

2. Positive intangibles – thank you, praise, respect, approval

3. Negative – coercion, punishment Incentives are tricky. It is difficult at best to predict how all employees will react to them, and the use of incentives can lead to unintentional results.

With tangible incentives, an underlying perception of “bribery” motivates some employees to under report incidents.

Tangibles also depend heavily on strong budgets. Offering giveaways, prizes and rewards one year, and then taking them away the next due to budget constraints, is a de-motivator to many.

Negative incentives can at best stop unwanted behaviors for as long as the punishment is remembered. Statistically, negative incentives produce average performance, not excellent performance.

Positive reinforcement is key

Presently, many companies operate with fewer employees and lower profits, while faced with increasing taxes and health care costs. Employees are working longer and harder, and many fear losing their jobs. These factors often lead to such practices as workers not alerting employees about work hazards out of fear of being labeled troublemakers. Conversely, management, trying to reduce costs, may cut back on safety training and even attempt to reduce insurance costs by not reporting accidents.

It is, however, even more important to strengthen a safety process in bad economic times. A truly safe workplace saves a company tremendous amounts of money. Positive intangible incentives (positive reinforcement) infused into a safety process, along with smart training and employee involvement and participation, can be the ticket to driving safety excellence.

“Encourage” motivation

The word, “encourage” provides a guideline for setting goals that make your incentive program truly motivational:
  • Evaluate the safety culture as it stands today as well as collectively (this includes management, supervision and all other workers) to identify where the company and employees want to be, what they expect and what must be done to achieve a “new” culture, if needed. A safety culture study can be a useful tool in achieving this goal.
  • Name the concerns and needs of all employees and take steps to align the needs of all.
  • Create an atmosphere of positive reinforcement rather than a strictly punitive atmosphere. While a disciplinary system is required for serious violations, it should not be used alone to motivate behavior. People will do more of what is positively reinforced.
  • Open opportunities for employee input and involvement in all facets of the safety process. Develop and establish strong communication systems.
  • Utilize and recognize the talents of employees and the insights they bring to the workplace, not only in safety, but also in productivity and quality. This approach is all people and behavior driven.
  • Reinforce and measure “leading” vs. “lagging” indicators. Companies often reward results without acknowledging the steps that lead to success. Celebrating the activities that produce the desired results is far more effective. Reinforcing practices such as reporting “near miss” incidents and developing solutions, identifying and recording desired safe behaviors, and developing measurement systems with feedback to all is reinforcing “leading” indicators. These leading indicators will then produce the desired lagging indicator measurement results.
  • Avoid reduction in training. Training is essential, and companies need to evaluate their budgets to include safety training.
  • Get management and supervision involved in all aspects of a safety process. Employees should not be expected to carry the ball by themselves; safety is a cooperative process.
  • Evaluate and measure all aspects of the safety process on a continuous basis, utilizing employee participation and input. This step cannot be overemphasized.
With companies struggling to regain stability in this difficult economic period, building trust and encouraging employees to be part of the whole process will go a long way. Does it really cost much to use encouragement and positive reinforcement?

1. Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P) 2009 Microsoft Corporation.

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