Editor's Desk - May/June 2015

A Little Healthy Competition

A friend of mine was recently telling me about a competition she had at her job that was aiming to encourage employees to be more active. The organization she works for split its employees up into teams and handed out pedometers to everyone. The goal was to be the team with the most steps, with a cash prize to be split among the winners.

With their eyes on the prize, she said most of the people in the office came up with various ways to "game" the system. Some people clipped their pedometer to their sleeves and earned "steps" for typing. Others realized that they could clip their pedometer to the cuff of their pants and take advantage of a bouncing foot to earn more steps.

Ultimately, from all that she told me, I'm not entirely sure any of the teams were honestly earning all their steps, and what's more—everyone knew it.

It reminded me of an incentive program at the first job I took after graduating from college. In that program, you got a cash reward for meeting a certain quota of new entries into a system. The entries didn't have to be very thorough. You got the same credit for entering a bare-bones report as you did for being thorough and gathering as much data as possible. Again, everyone seemed to find ways to game that system so as to earn as much as possible, and there were hundreds of entries that were missing virtually every detail, which were then foisted off onto others to fill in the missing information.

Both of these examples show how competition can go awry.

I am inclined to wonder, in retrospect, if both of those programs would have worked a little better if everyone had been able to earn and amass points to redeem later for merchandise and gift cards. The cash reward for just one team, or just the couple of employees with the most new entries seems to be setting the whole program up for the kinds of failures that did, indeed, take place.

And the ramifications for both programs seem, to me, to be fairly severe. In one case, you want to encourage healthier behavior in your workforce, and only end up rewarding dishonesty—despite the fact that most of those employees probably want to be fitter. (A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than half—51 percent—of adults want to lose weight, but only 25 percent claim that they are seriously working toward that goal.) And in the second case, the end result was a system full of flawed and incomplete entries, which created a disturbing degree of resentment among those employees who didn't cheat the system, but were constantly having to clean up after those who did. Not to mention the bad work habits the program created.

These are just two cases, but they highlight the importance of designing systems that are both fair and effective. And, even more, they highlight the importance of not trying to go it alone. Unless you have a good amount of experience creating such programs, you'll find far more success in your efforts if you enlist the help of experienced professionals—experts who have been working in the incentive industry and know how to avoid these sorts of pitfalls, understand how to create meaningful rewards, and are able to develop programs that encourage the desired changed in behavior.

A little competition can be a healthy thing. My husband and I are racking up the bike miles this spring, because the one who goes the farthest each month gets a new record, purchased by the other. Both of us win—not only because we both get to listen to the record, but because we're racking up the bike miles. We're both getting faster, stronger and fitter. And we're having a lot of fun doing it.

The rewards—whether merchandise and gift cards or cash—that are earned through incentive programs are an end—but they're not the end. And it's important to work with the right partners and develop effective communications to ensure that the people who are working to earn them know that.


Emily Tipping
Editorial Director,