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  • Fall 2014 Reinforcement Theory Case Study
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Reinforcement theory is one of the oldest theories that was derived by B.F. Skinner (1969) and it continues to provide a foundation for learning about employee motivation. Reinforcement theory’s main focus is with observing behavior of both people and animals. Reinforcement theory has become a behavioral procedure over time to assist with raising children, training pets and increasing the motivation of individuals at work.


This video provides an in-depth explanation into reinforcement theory and how it influences as well as controls behavior:




When starting a new job, there tends to be many minuscule details that come along on that first day. Many of these details can be found in an employee handbook, which may be provided to the employee on the first day, or the employee may be referred to an online version of the document. Within that handbook is a plethora of information - from company policies and procedures, to the benefits the employee will receive. Among those benefits are Employee Assistance Programs – also known as EAPs.  Employee assistance programs can provide advice on a wide range of work-related issues that the employee may experience.  However, as noted by Cooper, Dewe and O’Driscoll (2003) in Muchinsky’s Psychology Applied at Work, “such programs will be expected to support the investment organizations make in their employees and the value they place on a healthy workforce” (Muchinksy 2012). Under the umbrella of EAPs lies the “tuition assistance  program” – a benefit designed to allow employees to continue their education within certain guidelines set by the employer.  Tuition reimbursement programs are offered to show the employee that the company believes in them by investing in their personal goals as long as those goals are aligned with the needs of the employer.




But what happens when that tuition assistance program fails and is eliminated by the company?



Jessica had worked for WMH for 15 years when a Learning and Education Assistance Program (LEAP) was introduced for all eligible full-time employees seeking to further their education and needing help in doing so. WMH held as one of its core beliefs that its employees were its greatest asset, and the addition of  LEAP demonstrated their commitment. Jessica had attended college at Penn State following high school, but did not complete her degree program or graduate. She always intended to return, but the timing or finances never seemed to be optimal. When World Campus came about, it was finally possible for her to complete her degree at Penn State and the existence of LEAP made the financial situation bearable. She spent several months working with an Academic Adviser and processing the required paperwork, then started her first semester at World Campus. The spring and summer semesters went extremely well and Jessica was excited that she was finally on her way. Then, midway through the fall semester, WMH announced that they were terminating the LEAP program at the end of the year.

Jessica’s reaction was a combination of anger, frustration, confusion, and most of all, hurt. She had worked for this company for over 15 years, and believed it when they said their employees were their greatest asset and they prioritized development. Since this occurred, Jessica’s attitude became more negative, and her work ethic decreased. She changed from a highly motivated, highly engaged employee to a disengaged employee who often limits the effort she puts into her work.



With 32% of U.S. workers considering leaving their employers , enhancing tuition assistance programs can give organizations reason to rethink their engagement and retention strategies (Bell, 2014, 1). By providing tuition reimbursement, organizations positively reinforce the need for employees to learn and grow which makes them feel appreciative and loyal to their organization. The forethought of an organization investing in their employees’ education sends the message that they see a future with that employee which results in higher loyalty for the organization, thus reducing turnover. A recent study undertaken by the ROI Institute revealed nearly 64% of employees using TA programs indicated a significant or very significant improvement in overall engagement while the same percentage reported significant improvement in commitment to their employer (Bell, 2014, 3).

The study, taken by the ROI Institute, highlights how reinforcement theory influences employee performance. We can clearly see evidence of this in regards to our case. Jessica considered herself a loyal, dedicated, hard-working employee. She believed that LEAP was a reward for her work (positive reinforcement), and recognition of her ability to continue to add value to the company. When the positive reinforcement was removed, the desired behavior decreased.



Alternative stimuli must be offered to replace the stimulus that was removed, in order to increase the prior desired behavior. Since the ability to complete her degree is something the employee desires, the replacement stimuli should do the same. Flexible work arrangements and working from home are all examples of a company’s way of motivating an employee without increasing their overhead costs. Example – flexible working hours to avoid issues at home by allowing an employee to come in later (getting kids to school, doing housework, having breakfast with a spouse) and to work later in the evening (after kids are in bed, spouse is occupied).


An important component of Positive Reinforcement is that the reinforcement being provided should actually meet the needs of the employee whose behavior is being reinforced.  Consider this example:



Extinction is the third process in what is called operant conditioning within the Reinforcement Theory. Extinction is used to cause a learned behavior to be reversed through a series of stopping the performance of the learned behavior. In this way, extinction is similar to punishment. Both types of operant conditioning are used to reduce unwanted  behaviors continuing in order to break the cycle of the specific behavior being stopped. Businesses will sometimes use the process of extinction to downsize a company or a program within the company. The process of extinction may be necessary in certain instances in order to achieve a long-term goal or plan. The problem with this however, is the fact that much time was spent on positive reinforcement. This form of operant conditioning is successful, but due to certain demands, the process of extinction erases the positive reinforcement and could lead to possibly worse consequences with learned behaviors the company would need to start the process of positive reinforcement over again at a new level. The good thing about it is that the positive behavior can always be learned again, but it seems like a waste of time having to start over. Therefore, the process of extinction should only be used in instances where a definite change needs to be made. For instance, you have an employee who is constantly making jokes during briefings, in front of customers, to upper management, or to other employees. In this case, this employee is being disruptive and judgmental which could lead to a hostile work environment. Extinction of this behavior would definitely be the best process to correct this employee’s behavior. Management could begin by warning the employee of corrective actions that will be taken if the employee persists with this negative behavior. If the employee still continues to do this, management can choose to write him up with a Letter of Counseling, suspend or terminate the employee based on the severity.Either way, the process of extinction must persist until this unacceptable behavior has been stopped and corrected.



Negative reinforcement was described by B.F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning.  Negative reinforcement can be confusing, because its name implies the reinforcement of negative behavior – but that is wrong!  In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus.  Simply put, negative reinforcement deals with something bad being subtracted from the situation.


Here are some examples of negative reinforcement:

  • You learn that, on Monday morning, if you leave early for work you will avoid morning rush hour and being late, and you will have a few quiet moments to prepare before your weekly meeting with your boss.
  • Before you head out to the beach on a beautiful, sunny day, you slather on lots of sunscreen with a high SPF – to avoid the consequence of sunburn.

In both cases, by taking the preventive action noted (leaving early, applying sunscreen), you are able to avoid the unpleasant outcome (Monday stress, sunburn).  (Cherry, 2014)



Negative reinforcement is not to be confused with punishment.  As stated above, negative reinforcement concerns the removal of a negative condition in order to strengthen a behavior.  Punishment, on the other hand, concerns adding or removing a stimulus order to weaken a behavior.  (Cherry, 2014)



A study by Accenture revealed that work-life balance — ahead of money, recognition and autonomy — is the key determiner for more than half of men and women on whether or not they have a successful career.  The majority of employees believe having a positive work-life balance is attainable. More than two-thirds of the employees surveyed believe they can "have it all" when it comes to a having both a successful career and a full life outside work. Work-life balance is so important that more than half of those surveyed have turned down a job offer because of the potential impact on it.”  Tuition reimbursement programs are a proven method to motivate an employee and meet the employee’s needs, in order to maximize the employee’s skill set for a positive impact to the company’s bottom line.   (Brooks, C. 2013)



Alanis Business Article. (2014, September 9). Reinforcement Theory of Motivation. (Video File) Retrieved from:


Bell, B (2014). Enhancement Engagement and Reduce Turnover with Tuition Assistance. Evolution. Retrieved from:


Brooks, C. (2013). Career Success Means Work-Life Balance, Study Finds.  Retrieved 09 11, 2014, from Business News Daily:


Cherry, K. (2014). About Education. Retrieved 09 12, 2014, from What is Negative Reinforcement:










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