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Ask the Expert: Using Monetary Incentives in Behavior-Based Safety

“Why shouldn’t we use gift cards to reward people for doing observations and feedback?”

by Grainne Matthews, Ph.D.

The short answer is because cash-equivalent rewards are valuable enough to motivate the wrong behavior—the behavior of “pencil-whipping” a checklist. Pencil-whipping can be as bad as photocopying a bunch of checklists to submit or inventing an observation while sitting in the cafeteria at lunch. Pencil-whipping also includes situations where an observer does actually conduct an observation but puts very little effort into thoughtfully considering how safe the observed person is working, sincerely appreciating the safe behaviors, or having a meaningful discussion of potential improvements.

credit cardWhat happens when you provide monetarily valuable rewards for participation? People come to believe that turning in a piece of paper is the most important thing you want them to do, because you are providing the more valuable rewards for that, aren’t you? So how well I examine the safety of the work situation, how carefully I complete the checklist, and how personal I make my conversation with the observee are not that important.

The second way gift cards damage your process affects the observed person rather than the observer. When you are observed by someone whom you know is receiving a valuable cash-equivalent reward for conducting that observation, you are less likely to believe that the observer actually cares about your safety. You become disillusioned about his or her feedback and therefore less likely to reciprocate if she does try to discuss improvements with you. You start to become cynical about the process in general and less likely to conduct observation and feedback yourself. 

Promoting participation in your behavioral safety process is much more complex than buying a carton of gift cards and distributing them to people who make the numbers.