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  • Spring 2016 Reinforcement Theory Case Study
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Reinforcement theory is a behavioral theory that was first introduced in 1969 by B. F. Skinner during his work with Operant Conditioning.  Basing his work off Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, Skinner proposed that behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated whereas behavior that is unreinforced tends to die out (McLeod, 2015).  Through his dedicated research, Skinner determined that behavior eliciting variables, called stimuli, can be manipulated in order to create certain actions, called responses, and by doing so, certain consequences, or results, can be obtained (PSU WC, 2016, L03, p. 2).  Skinner determined that there were four methods to which you can manipulate behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Reinforcement is a behavior modification for which the frequency of a certain behavior will be increased once stimuli have been manipulated (McLeod, 2015).  Positive reinforcement is the method of adding a positive stimulus in order to foster a specific desirable behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L03, p. 4).  For example, if an employee continually meets his/her goal, their boss may give them a monetary bonus in hopes they will continue to meet their goal.  Negative reinforcement is the method of removing a certain stimulus in order to foster a specific desirable behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L03, p. 4).  An example of negative reinforcement could be seen when an employee decides to show up to work in a timely manner so that his boss do not constantly nag at him about tardiness. 

Punishment is a type of behavior modification for which the frequency of a certain behavior will be decreased upon the manipulation of stimuli (McLeod, 2015).  Positive punishment, which is often thought of as a “traditional” punishment, occurs when an unpleasant stimulus is added in hopes of decreasing the frequency of undesirable behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 5).  An example of positive punishment would be the suspension of an employee after continual tardiness to work.  Negative punishment occurs when a pleasant stimulus is withdrawn in order to decrease the frequency of undesirable behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 5).  An example of negative punishment would be the relocation of a poorly behaving employee away from his/her friends to a room by themselves in hopes of lessening the amount of joking around at work. 

If the desire is to increase a behavior, reinforcement should be utilized whereas punishment should be used in hopes to decrease a certain behavior. 

The Situation:

ABC Collection Agency employs 10 telephone debt collectors (call center team).  ABC currently has over 100 school clients across the country.  The agency’s clients place delinquent student loans ("bad debt") for collection.  The call center team make calls to consumers (past students) to establish payment arrangements for repayment of the outstanding debt.  Clients depend on the agency’s monthly recovery of bad debt to provide additional revenue to their businesses, and clients pay a fee on the amount of money the agency recovers monthly.  In this industry, it is the case that an agency will lose a client’s business if recovery falls below an expected amount over a predetermined period of months.

The Problem:

Over the last six months, agency management has reported a growing concern that client recoveries are slipping.  Not only is this noticeable though internal fee generation reports, but 5 clients have taken their business to other agencies after complaining that ABC’s monthly remittances (dollars collected and sent to the clients) have been dropping even though they have been receiving a steady flow of new accounts for collection.  In addition to the dropping revenues, the collection manager has reported that turnover has increased on the call center floor, employees seem to lack motivation, and do not seem to put forth 100% effort in the number of accounts they work daily, or the amount of monies they are recovering.  To add fuel to the fire, the number of consumer complaints against the call center employees has increased by 15% over the last six months.

The Solution:

The collection manager approached the management team and requested the offering of a bonus plan to call center employees.  Management approved this suggestion, but tasked the collection manager with creating a bonus structure that includes: 1) a monetary reward for reaching a predetermined goal in agency fee on monies collected, 2) a monetary penalty for any technical or regulatory violation, 3) a demerit system to encourage 100% attendance, 4) on any day that the call center team collection goal is not met, the next day background music in the call center (enjoyed by everyone) is turned off.

The Bonus Plan: (paid at the end of each month):

Fee Generation: Each $1000 collected in fee by an employee in the month - $50 in bonus is awarded to that employee (i.e., $5000 in fee = $250 bonus)

Compliance: Violation of company policy or regulatory violation (industry-related laws) – 50% reduction in bonus for that month (i.e., employee violates a state law = 50% reduction in bonus; using the above example $250 x 50% = $125 loss) 

Complaints: Each consumer complaint – 25% reduction in bonus for that month (i.e., bonus now down to $125 with violation; 1 consumer complaint = $125 x 75% = $93.75 final bonus for the month)

Teamwork:  If all team members hit their fee goal for the month, each member is awarded an additional $100 in bonus (in our ee example, all members did not hit their goal so no one gets this piece)

Non-monetary rewards/penalties:

Demerit system for attendance

Music in the call center

Teamwork – opportunities to help with training new employees (possible acknowledgement reward for those working above and beyond to help other employees meet their goals)

Positive Reinforcement

According to the lesson (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 4), positive reinforcement theory is the process of applying “a pleasant stimulus with the response of increasing the frequency of desirable behavior.” An example of applying positive reinforcement to the present case would be the inclusion of a monetary reward as an employee reaches a pre-determined sales quota. In order to be an effective positive reinforcement tool, the employee must be aware that the monetary reward is contingent on their meeting their goal (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 4). An organization would be most effective if it disseminated the information about the bonus well in advance, and then publicly celebrated those who reached their goal.

Negative Reinforcement

"Negative reinforcement involves the withdrawing of an unpleasant stimulus with the response of increasing the frequency of the desired behavior" (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 4). Applied to this scenario, the unpleasant stimulus can be any inefficiency in the system or other challenge that employees face to executing their duties. Examples of these unpleasant stimuli can be too much paperwork, too many steps in a process, too many people having to be consulted, etc. To remove this unpleasant stimulus, management can implement an "open-door" policy which encourages workers to come forward and bring these challenges to management. Management can then take steps fix these issues, such as reducing paperwork, streamlining processes and approval chains, which reinforces desirable behavior (productivity).

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is an effective application of behavior modification. For it to be administered correctly one would apply a stimulus that is unwanted, in an effort to reduce the unwanted or undesired behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 5).  For this to be the most effective the stimulus would need to be given at the time of the unwanted behavior. Delaying the unwanted stimulus can affect the success of the behavior modification.

In our situation, absenteeism and tardiness are creating problems that are affecting the behaviors of the employees, as well as, the financials for the company. To apply Positive Punishment to the situation, a solution could be a demerit system for tardiness and/or absenteeism, such as one demerit is given to any employee who misses 2 hours of work unexcused. At the end of each calendar quarter, whoever has 4 demerits loses 1 day of company paid vacation time. An unexcused absence would result in the loss of 1 vacation day. If the employee has used all their allotted vacation time, they would receive no pay for the missed absences.

Negative Punishment

Negative Punishment occurs when a pleasant stimulus is taken away in response to an undesirable behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 5).  The easiest way to think about this style of punishment is "punishment by removal (PSU WC, 2016, L 03, p. 5).  The goal of this type of punishment is to lessen the undesirable behavior by removing rewards.

For instance, a monetary penalty will be applied to any team member that has a technical or regulatory violation with the company.  This means that the employee will essentially be fined for making a mistake that costs the organization money.  By applying Negative Punishment to this situation, it is our hope that we can lessen the occurrences of mistakes and skating or violating the laws and regulations that govern their industry.  Another way in which Negative Punishment will be used is by turning off the house music, which is enjoyed by the staff, the day after a sales goal is not reached.  By using this tactic, it is our hope that our collections team will act more like a team and try to achieve the sales goals for the day.


As a team, we have come to the conclusion that the best application of reinforcement theory is a policy that addresses each component, because people often have widely differing reinforcement needs. To reinforce positive behaviors in a workplace, a monetary reward will be an excellent first step to begin motivating many people. However, many people may have the motivation to be industrious and successful team members, but cannot surmount certain obstacles or inefficiencies in the system. Implementing an "open door" policy will help, whereby employees who noticed inefficiency's in the system or obstacles to the execution of their duties could bring them to the attention of their supervisor. This will facilitate an outlet for employees that may be experiencing feelings of cynicism and have become apathetic. 

We have also decided that it is critical to modify certain undesirable behaviors. In many industries, noncompliance with federal regulations can lead to unacceptable consequences. Implementing positive punishment, such as a monetary penalty for those who do not uphold organizational standards will go a long way towards encouraging compliance. The demerit system to encourage attendance will provide strong motivation to make it to work. Those who find this system unacceptable will leave, hopefully making room for more productive employees. Additionally, we will be using principles of negative punishment to keep employees focused on productivity. A daily goal will be established that must be met for the workers to enjoy music the following day.  



Domjan, M. (2009). The principles of learning and behavior: Active learning edition. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning. 

McLeod, Saul. (2007: Updated 2015).  Skinner – Operant Conditioning.  Simply Psychology.  Retrieved on January 29, 2016 from:

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2016).  PSYCH 484 Lesson 03: Reinforcement Theory: What are the Rewards for My Work?  Retrieved on January 25, 2016 from: 

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