Timothy Gubler, Ian Larkin, Lamar Pierce have conducted a provocative new study regarding employee awards. They collected data about an attendance award program at a private commercial laundry services company in the Midwestern United States. One of the company's five plants chose to implement an award for good attendance. Managers wanted to reduce absences and tardiness. The other four plants did not institute this program. The program was rather simple. All employees without an unexcused absence or tardy in the prior month received recognition before their peers, and they became eligible for a drawing for a $75 gift card. The program lasted for a bit less than a year. Senior executives at the company eliminated the program because they felt it rewarded behavior that should be expected of everyone.
The scholars studied this program, and they found that the award produced two important unintended consequences. Here is an excerpt from the paper's abstract:
First, employees game
the program, improving timeliness only when eligible for the award, and
strategically calling in sick to retain eligibility. Second, employees
with perfect pre-program attendance or high productivity suffered a 6%
to 8% productivity decrease after program introduction, suggesting they
were demotivated by awards for good behavior they already exhibited.
Overall, our results suggest the award program decreased plant
productivity by 1.4%, and that positive effects from awards are
accompanied by more complex employee responses that limit program
I don't think we should be surprised by these results. When creating any type of incentive or recognition program, we should remember the law of unintended consequences. Still the paper documents the phenomenon in a powerful way. I find it particularly interesting that this award program clearly created a perception of injustice. People felt that people did not merit recognition for simply showing up when they should anyway. Perceptions of inequity should be top of mind when creating reward programs. These feelings are likely to trigger discontent and unintended consequences.