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  • Reinforcement Theory Case Study, Fall 2016
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Overview/Introduction

There are environmental factors that focus on shaping and modifying behavior; this source of motivation can be derived from consequences of behavior in the environment, which are all part of the reinforcement theory (PSU WC, L.3, p. 2). The environment, external to the organization, can often be designed just enough to influence the person's actions. The consequences of behavior allows for people to learn by connecting those consequences to their behavior from various stimuli and responses. A technique widely known and used is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs during the consequence and is promoted when the desired behavior is demonstrated (PSU WC, L.3, p.4). It has been observed that generally people tend to repeat those behaviors which give them gratification and shy away from the things that give them dissatisfaction. The desired behavior is initially acknowledged on a fixed ratio interval, which means that for every positive action, the employee receives something in return, whereas a variable ratio interval does not acknowledge desired behavior on a scheduled basis (PSU WC, L.3, p. 6). The other side of reinforcement theory is negative punishment. Negative punishment removes the positive stimuli in direct response to undesirable behavior (PSU WC, L.3, p. 5).  Both positive reinforcement and negative punishment are normally reset in either fixed or variable intervals. In this case study, the time period used is a quarterly fixed interval. Therefore, the reinforcement theory considers the environment prior to behavior and subsequent behavior that has been modified through response-consequence connections.


08.png                                                                              ⓒ Dev, 2012.

Details of the Case

A local company recently implemented a new strategy to modify their issues with employee engagement and absenteeism. This new program’s goal was to simultaneously combat both issues. The company explained the program, which allowed for individual employees to earn a star for weekly perfect attendance and community service. There would also be a star for the entire department every time they reached their weekly production goals. At the end of each quarter, the employees with the most stars were able to compete for a gift card. Some examples of the competitions were basketball, chess, corn hole, dance and ping pong. However, if an employee received any disciplinary action during the quarter they were ineligible to participate.

Within the first year of the program’s implementation, the absenteeism was substantially reduced and the employees began to use gathering stars as a competition. Some employees were starting to encourage each other to volunteer in order to get more stars. This meant that everyone was following the rules that were implemented and positively achieving goals within the company in order to receive more stars. Managers constantly praised their employees and their turnover rate was nearly zero.  It is now their third year with this program and they have said it is just as effective now as it was when they first implemented it.   

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Application of the Theory

In applying the appropriate concepts of the reinforcement theory, we evaluated the issue that the company was having. Positive reinforcement was used to combat the issue of absenteeism and engagement with the community. The stimuli in this case are the desired behaviors: attending work on the correct schedule and engagement with community efforts. When the stimuli were observed the response was for the employee to receive a star on their photos. After the response was observed enough times to satisfy the fixed ratio interval requirements the consequence was the employee received the opportunity to compete in a game for a gift certificate.

The chance to compete for a gift certificate did not guarantee a gift certificate. The game in itself can be seen as a second “round” of positive reinforcement. The game (stimuli) would undoubtedly result in either a win or a loss for the employee (response) on a variable ratio interval. The consequence would be the awarding of the gift certificate. The hopeful application would be that the employee connect the attainment of the gift certificate with the desired behaviors of attending work and community engagement. Having the chance to compete for the prize rather than just rewarding the individual with the most stars, helps motivate employees who may have otherwise not gained enough stars to win. Otherwise they could lose the motivation to continue the desired behavior.

At the same time as the positive reinforcement model being implemented a negative punishment was also initiated. The undesired behavior was any behavior which might result in disciplinary action. The desired variable was inclusion in the positive reinforcement model.

Positive Reinforcement

Although there are varying definitions of positive reinforcement they all mention obtaining a desired behavior through some form of motivating item which may include verbal praise, emails recognizing employee accomplishments, public congratulations during weekly meetings, or reward programs. Using positive reinforcement can provide a sense of worth, encourage good behavior, improve workplace morale, and increase employee’s ability to fit in (Redmond, 2012).

Making an employee feel good about the work they are doing by giving them praise will increases their sense of self-worth and works to alleviate any self-doubts they may have about their performance abilities. Encouraging good behavior with positive reinforcement can increase the chances of a desired behavior reoccurring in the future. When the supervisor lets workers know the manager appreciates the employees efforts it can foster a more positive work atmosphere, thus improving workplace morale. When the employee feels happier in their position it results in them being more helpful with other employees. This is especially import in work environments where teamwork is essential to getting the job done. Lastly, new employees may have concerns about their job performance or fitting in with their team. Giving praise or other forms of acknowledgment can alleviate these concerns and allow them to confidently and efficiently perform their tasks (Joseph, 2016).

In the sample case the employees are lacking engagement and experiencing high absenteeism. The employees were able to earn a star for perfect work attendance, as well as, the engagement of community volunteer opportunities.  This positive reinforcement for earning a star for work attendance encourages good behavior. The employees come to work in order to earn a star for the chance of earning a gift card.  Whether or not they win the gift card they are being acknowledged for good behavior with the star on publicly displayed pictures. It would also seem likely that there would be an improvement in workplace morale as employees from all departments would be coming together to see who has how many stars on their pictures – ultimately resulting in a lively competition.

Including the challenge of participating in community service is likely to entice the employees to conduct these services with fellow employees. This would represent a few categories. It may give employees a sense of self worth outside of work, it would foster teamwork improving workplace morale, and it may help form bonds with new employees allowing them to feel a stronger sense of fitting in.

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Negative Punishment

Management in this case study chose to use negative punishment as a means of reducing the undesired behaviors exhibited by employees. In order for the punishment to be effective, “the end result must decrease the frequency of undesirable behavior.” (Redmond, 2012)  Negative punishment removes a pleasant stimulus. A pleasant stimulus can be anything from a coveted job position, leaving work early, or extra pay. 


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                                                                          ⓒ Wozny, N.D.


In this example, one of the pleasant stimulus being removed is the eligibility to participate in the various games being offered. If an employee receives a reprimand they are automatically ineligible to participate in any rewards program for the quarter in which the infraction occurred. (Lane, 2016) A second stimulus is the ability for employees to earn a star to further their chances of receiving the reward. This can be considered the initial baseline management created to gauge employee behavior. For example, if the number of reprimands decreases over a period of time, this indicates to management that the desired behavior is increasing. On the other hand, if reprimands and stars being given shows no improvement, management can reevaluate their strategy in hopes of alleviating the issue. Therefore, the desired behavior is in hoping the employees maintain proper attendance and actively participate in organizational engagements. In doing so, the consequences may lead to them being eligible to participate in the games and the winning of a particular prize.

A benefit for management in using negative punishment is that the behavior may completely cease. This is known as extinction. However, the extinction may only be temporary. As mentioned above, if the behavior returns a reevaluation may be needed, thus being a downside of using negative punishment.

Resolving the Issue

Reinforcement theory can be used in many ways increase employee engagement and decrease absenteeism.

Positive Reinforcement

Option 1: Positive reinforcement would encourage employees to continue their engagement by providing them with a reward, consequence, which they desire. In this case, the company could offer bonus pay, additional time off, a casual dress day, etc. The chosen consequence must be relatable to the stimulus, though, so that the employees are aware of the behavior that is desired to be repeated (PSU WC, L.3, p. 4).

  • Pro: Employees would be more engaged in community service.

  • Con: It would cost the company more money to offer bonuses, time off, etc.

Option 2: Positive reinforcement could also be used to encourage perfect attendance. When employees show up for work everyday, a positive consequence can be offered to reinforce the desired stimulus.

  • Pro: Absenteeism would decrease, and the company would potentially save money by not having to pay for sick days or lose production.

  • Con: Depending on the positive consequence offered, it could cost the company more.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment would also be a way to discourage employees from missing work. When an employee misses a day, the company could have them work extra hours to make up the time. The added punishment would be undesirable and employees would avoid the stimulus.

  • Pro: Absenteeism would decrease, and no working hours would be lost.

  • Con: The company would have to pay the employees overtime for the additional hours worked.

Negative Punishment

Another way to decrease absenteeism is negative punishment. By withholding a positive stimulus, undesired actions would be avoided (PSU WC,L.3, p. 5.). For example, bonus pay, paid holidays, additional vacation time, etc. could be offered to the employees that miss less than a certain number of days of work. This would prevent employees from missing work so that they do not miss out on these rewards.

  • Pro: Absenteeism would decrease, and the company could potentially save money by not giving bonuses to employees that missed too much work.

  • Con: Employees may get frustrated and take even more days off work because they are not getting the bonus regardless.


Analysis

The company relied upon the law of effect in order to change employee behavior (PSU WC, L.3, p. 3.). Positive reinforcement was applied because the company had an understanding that offering a reward for desired behavior was likely to elicit a favorable response (PSU WC, L.3, p. 4). When the employees had perfect attendance and engaged in behavior that the company encouraged, they had the potential to be rewarded. Within the first year of the program's implementation, their absenteeism was substantially reduced and employees were starting to encourage each other to volunteer in order to get more stars. Employees began to turn gathering stars into a competition, which meant that everyone was following the rules in order to have a chance at obtaining the reward. The use of positive reinforcement seemed to be key in order to improve both attendance and employee engagement issues.  In order to ensure the reward system worked, the company implemented a negative punishment in order to deter unwanted behavior (PSU WC, L.3, p. 5).  

If an employee was reprimanded, then they lost the chance to compete for a chance at a gift certificate at the end of the quarter. The hope of adding in a negative punishment was that the attendance issues or lack of engagement would become extinct once the reward was removed (PSU WC, L.3, p. 5).  After a couple of years, the company was able to prove the system worked as the original issues disappeared. In order to engage employees even more, there are still a few things that could be improved upon, though. Since employees are not guaranteed a reward for perfect attendance and engagement, other kinds of positive reinforcement could be offered, such as extra overtime, bonus pay, or additional paid time off (PTO). To offset the positive reinforcement, negative punishment, such as withholding overtime, bonus pay, or PTO could be given to those whom continue to break rules. In order to continue to be effective, this program will need to be reevaluated as employee interests change. A reward system is only effective if the stimuli is appealing to the participants (PSU WC, L.3, p.9).         

This organization realized that environmental factors within their control ultimately affected employee behavior (good and bad). Positive reinforcement ultimately led to a potential reward on a fixed interval basis in order to keep employees engaged and interested. The negative punishment took away the potential reward for the quarter during which the reprimand was received. By removing the reward, the company hoped to eliminate unsatisfactory behavior. Ultimately, a version of the reinforcement theory was utilized to help change the environment and in the end, positively impacted the culture.

References

Dev, R. (2012). Motivation & Management. [Online image]. Retrieved September 8, 2016 from http://durofy.com/motivation-management/

Joseph, C. (2016). Why is positive reinforcement important in the workplace? Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/positive-reinforcement-important-workplace-11566.html

Lane, K. (2016, September). Case Study Ideas. [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/groups/326639/discussion_topics/11418195

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (n.d.). PSYCH 484 Lesson 3: Reinforcement Theory: What are the Rewards for My Work? p. 1-10. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1803780/modules/items/21267604

Redmond, B. F. (2012, June 24). Pages Work Attitudes and Job Motivation Home - Kayla Weaver (FA16 002) 3. Reinforcement Theory . Retrieved from wikispaces.psu.edu: https://wikispaces.psu.edu/display/PSYCH484/Reinforcement+Case+Study

Schacter, H. (2009, March 25). Staff lack drive? Reward system may be to blame.The Globe and Mail, C2

Wozny, L. (n.d.) Negative Punishment. [Online image]. Retrieved September 8, 2016 from https://www.tes.com/lessons/MQpX8U5qUXSF1Q/operant-conditioning

 

 

 

 

 

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