Implementing a behavior-based incentive program

I've inherited a safety incentive program that rewards people for lagging indicators and I'm worried that workers may be hiding injuries. How can I shift to a behavior-based program?

Answered by Bill Sims Jr., president, The Bill Sims Co., Columbia, SC.

All too often, safety managers unwillingly inherit an old-school safety incentive program based on trailing indicators. These programs reward employees for working a period of time without a reported injury. While initially sometimes achieving dramatic injury reductions, these programs quickly deteriorate into a "self-perpetuating nightmare," as one safety manager put it.

The common problems associated with these programs are:

  • Injury hiding – employees cover up injuries so as not to interfere with the group winning the award prize

  • A "Band-Aid" approach to safety, as opposed to ripping out the roots of accidents

  • An "entitlement mentality," in which employees feel they should be paid more or somehow earn bigger prizes based on the number of years they've been injury free

  • Safety committees spend more time picking out the next gift than figuring out behaviors that should be rewarded and reinforced

  • Hard to say if the incentive budget is really producing a return on investment

  • Employees who take safety seriously are rewarded at the same level as those who break safety rules and take chances – sending a message that management really values only the safety scores at the end of the year, not the behaviors that led to them
These are only a handful of the problems associated with lagging indicator reward programs. So how do you drop lagging indicator rewards in favor of behavior-based recognition?

Many companies just go "cold turkey." With a CEO's backing, the safety manager will simply end the trailing indicator rewards program and design a more behavioral-type rewards program.

In a behavior-based approach, the new standard becomes "zero unsafe behaviors and conditions" in place of the old target of "zero injuries." Raising the bar sets a new standard for organizations that have struggled year after year to attain zero injuries but often have failed. Now, armed with a behavioral tool that helps them chart unsafe actions, near misses and safety improvement suggestions, organizations can focus upstream and – in striving relentlessly for zero unsafe behaviors – achieve zero injuries as a byproduct.

Sticking with trailing indicator rewards will kill this upstream approach every time. In short, "What got you here, won't get you there," and it is time to take off the training wheels and move into a behavior-based recognition solution.

So, what are the dynamics of an effective behavior-based recognition solution?

Training: No more 'spray and pray'

New research shows 95 percent of all training is forgotten within two weeks (some safety managers say it happens in less than two hours). Many companies use a spray and pray approach to training, where they spray their posters, newsletters and safety videos at employees and pray that people are paying attention. To combat this, a behavior-based recognition solution can be used to recognize employees who pay attention and learn what you want them to. Another, more forward-thinking step is to recognize children and spouses of employees for their buy-in to your process.

On-the-spot recognition

As with any safety program, a behavior-based recognition program must be implemented the right way. One company decided to get rid of its old-school lagging-indicator program and replace it with an in-house behavior-based solution. The company purchased a supply of gifts, hired a full-time employee to run its store, and printed up "Safety Bucks," which supervisors gave to employees who "did something safe." Yet over time, the company noticed that only supervisors and their favorite employees were receiving gifts – the "good ol' boy" system was the kiss of death for the program.

To make your program effective, recognition of positive behaviors must occur within 15 seconds of the behavior, according to Aubrey Daniels, an Atlanta-based company that provides behavior-based workplace solutions. You must create an on-the-spot reward/recognition solution that eliminates favoritism and injury hiding.

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