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Exploring the Frequency and Duration of Incentives
By Ley Borlo and Joshua Klapow, Ph.D.

In our last two columns we discussed cash and other tangible awards as motivators and how important it is to give your employees a choice in the awards they want. There are two other important questions you need to answer when planning an incentive or recognition award program: How often you should reward individuals during the program (frequency), and how long should your program run (duration)? 

A study conducted by the International Society of Performance Improvement shows that “if selected, implemented and monitored correctly, incentive programs—with awards in the form of money or tangible awards—increase performance by an average of 22%. Team incentives can increase performance by as much as 44%.”

The keys mentioned in that study are “selected, implemented and monitored correctly.”  When you understand frequency and duration from an employee’s point of view, you are better prepared to structure your program. While there are no absolute rules, there are some important considerations.  An understanding of these considerations will, in turn, help you implement the right program.

All too often we see programs that run too long or don’t run long enough. Programs that have a year-end objective and don’t issue awards until much further out than the year are common.  Sometimes awards are so far removed from the action(s) which earned the award that the employee doesn’t even remember what he/she did to get it. It’s unfortunate to find incentive programs that do incorporate meaningful actions to be taken on a frequent and consistent basis, but don’t issue awards in the same frequent and consistent time frame. 

What Science Tells Us About Frequency
Determining the frequency and duration of an incentive program goes beyond uncovering the value in the program. In general, the closer the incentive is in time to the desired occurring behavior, the stronger the association will be between the incentive and the behavior.  Consequently, incentives that are given days, weeks, or worse yet, months after the behavior has occurred are not likely to be very effective. 

The only way to counter this is to increase the intensity or meaningfulness of the incentive —if you want an employee to do lots of things for a long period of time before receiving an award, then the reward better be big. And everyone should have the opportunity to earn this award, assuming performance justifies it.

 Conversely, if you can issue smaller rewards more frequently, you may be able to decrease the intensity of the reward itself. When there is a behavior that you want to occur frequently (i.e. reduced absenteeism, daily safety practices, exercise, glucose monitoring, selling to new customers), your incentives should thus be given out more frequently. The less frequent the behavior, the less frequent the incentive.

This temporal relationship is key, particularly in the early stages of what is known as behavior acquisition.  When you are trying to get a behavior to occur for the first time, a continuous cycle of behavior, reward, behavior, reward is critical. This pattern is known as a continuous reinforcement schedule. Over a period of time the continuous schedule can be changed so that the reward occurs after a set number of behaviors or a set amount of time (e.g. every third behavior, or maybe every two weeks). If you stretch the frequency out too far, you will see the behavior start to fall off. This signals that the frequency of the reward should increase or the intensity should increase.

What Science Tells Us About Duration
How long do you want to keep rewarding employees? It would be nice to think that after a certain period of time, the behavior will just occur out of habit. This could easily be determined as the appropriate duration of the reward period.  However, for many behaviors that are taxing and complex, such as work, you are not likely to be successful if you remove the reward. Would you go to work for no pay?

However, you can space the rewards out over time so that the same intensity (i.e. annual pay amount) is distributed over set time periods (i.e. monthly pay periods).  For other more intermittent behaviors such as benefits enrollment, completion of a health risk assessment, attendance at a lunch and learn, etc., the incentive can be tied to a behavior within a timeframe. For example, you could enroll in a wellness program within the next two weeks and receive a reward. 

Finally, for some behaviors, after a long period of external rewards, the behavior itself can become rewarding. Exercise, healthy diet and mentoring can all take on reinforcing properties once they have been engaged in for a significant period of time. These kinds of behaviors can be subjected to a fading of the incentive slowly over time.

Certainly, employees are complex; each has his/her own individual strengths and weaknesses. If you know your employees well, you can create the most efficient and productive work environment.  In that same line of thinking, know your incentives well and you will create a powerful and cost-effective incentive program. 


About the Authors

Ley Borlo is president of awardemployees.com and is based in Phoenix. He has written for workspan and Engagement Strategies magazine (formerly Motivation), among others.

Joshua C. Klapow, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Health Care Organization at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Klapow is also the chief strategy officer and chief behavioral scientist for ChipRewards Inc., a consumer health incentive company.


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