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  • Summer 2014 - Reinforcement Theory Case Study
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Reinforcement Theory is based on the work of B.F. Skinner, also known as Operant Conditioning. Stimuli are applied or taken away to increase or decrease a desired behavior. Positive refers to the application of stimuli and negative refers to the removal of stimuli. Reinforcement seeks to increase a target behavior and punishment seeks to decrease a behavior. Stimuli are applied at specific times known as schedules. These can be applied at fixed or variable intervals (ex: every day) or ratios (ex. every sixth trial). (Penn State)

The chart below describes each type of conditioning and how it is used. 



PA Counseling Services is a fairly new company in the State College Area. They provide counseling services for individuals and families on a range of topics including savings counseling (for people who are trying to save money), educational counseling (for those who are trying to get back in school), marriage counseling (for those who are having trouble with their marriage), child counseling (just with the child or the whole family), financial counseling (for those who need help with their finances) etc.

Employees are paid for each client they book. They are not given incentives for completing a case. Clients are able to book a counselor online or by walking into the office at least a day before their desired appointment. PA Counseling's employees have an outstanding record of providing counseling services to their clients. In a recent survey they received a 98% on their resources, employee knowledge of their area of expertise, and their positive attitude, and an A in a local newspaper on the outstanding services they provide to the community. However, in the same survey and newspaper they received a B and some comments about the tardiness of their employees. PA Counseling Services has had a problem with their employees coming to work on time. There have been multiple occasions where their clients have had to wait from 30 minutes to over 2 hours for their the counselor to arrive. This has been an issue since the office opened last year, but has gotten progressively worse and is beginning to effect the reputation of the company. The majority of the company has familites with small children. These employees feel that there is no incentive to come to work early because they are not paid by the hour or by completed case. 

Positive Reinforcements

“Positive Reinforcements are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward” (K. Cherry, 2014) Positive reinforcements use the reward system. The reward system is a process in which individuals or animals are rewarded with something positive after completing a task. Rewards could include but are not limited to compliments, money, paid for time off, food, gifts, treats, public acknowledgement, recognition and so much more. 


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When employees show up late to work on a regular basis, punishment is not needed. Instead, employers should reward employees who are punctual. A specific task that many people face on a daily basis is being punctual. How often are you late for things? Are you prepared to arrive where needed at the expected time?

To define punctual:




  1. strictly observant of an appointed or regular time; not late; prompt.
  2. made, occurring, etc., at the scheduled or proper time: punctual payment.
  3. pertaining to or of the nature of a point.
  4. punctilious

(, 2014) 

Most individuals have a time and place that they need to arrive at daily. In many cases, individuals arrive late. Some situations and career choices do not see the effects of individuals arriving late but there are some that do. Arriving late can cause issues for others involved. When the expectation of showing up to work on time just isn’t enough – individuals could and/or should be rewarded for showing up to work on time. A momentum that shows the company’s appreciation for the employees that are punctual and arrive to work on time and in some cases, early. Some examples of rewards that could be given to punctual individuals include earned time for personal days, first choice at tasks that others may not want to complete, paid breakfast or lunch, gift card, acknowledge in a company email, movie tickets and leaving early on a Friday. A system should be put into place to honor these rewards - weekly, monthly or quarterly. 

The positive reinforcement needs to be exciting or appreciated enough to motivate individuals to continue such a behavior on a regular basis which would become the normal. According to B.F. Skinner, “positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding” (McLeod, 2014 – speaking of BF Skinner)


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Negative Reinforcements       


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Negative Reinforcement for the employees of PA Counseling Services can come from many fronts. Most of these are occurring from natural consequences. Negative Reinforcement is the removal stimuli that strengthens a desired behavior (Kanazawa, 2010). The most important behavior to strengthen in this instance is being on time. One instance of negative reinforcement that would strengthen an employees resolve to be there on time is the removal social stigma at work. Angry glares or comments from clients, coworkers and supervisors can be upsetting. Removing these would reinforce the target behavior. Another example of negative reinforcement is the fact that when an employee comes to work on time, he then gets home earlier. This removes the negative stimuli of being rushed, harried or leaving loved ones disappointed. This is something that as a supervisor in PA Counseling Services I would stress, particularly as most employees have families at  home. The "B" rating itself is a negative stimulus that would be removed if the employees to work on time. There are many small things about a workplace that can serve as negative reinforcers. PA Counseling Services could have free coffee and pastries that are only served until 8:30 am. The irritation of going through the morning sans coffee or having to spend their own money on pricey coffee is the stimulus that is removed.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is the presentation of an unpleasant stimulus with the proposed result of decreasing an undesirable behavior.  This is type of punishment we most commonly associate with doing something bad or getting in trouble. An example of this is a boss verbally reprimanding an employee for poor performance or in this case, showing up to work late on a regular basis.

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"It is estimated that 83 percent of companies use some form of punishment or the threat of punishment" (Beyer & Trice, 1984). Companies have multiple ways to elicit positive punishment to tardy employes. These can consist of verbal or written warnings, deduction of pay or having to stay longer at work to make up for the lost time.

There are drawbacks to using positive punishment that could influence its effectiveness. Punishment should be given immediately after the undesired action so that the employee can directly associate the punishment with what they did wrong.Also, an employer should never punish an employee in the presence of other employees. This can cause humiliation, embarrassment and other undesirable emotional reactions.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is removing what employees like when they have performed an undesired behavior. It withdraws a pleasant stimulus with the goal of decreasing the frequency of the undesired behavior. In other words, it is punishment by removal.

In PA Counseling employees are paid by the number of people who book appointments with them. An example of negative punishment would be switching clients to another counselor when the desired counselor was late to their scheduled appointment. This removes the important stimulus of the pay they would have received for that booking. This would decrease the frequency of the undesired behavior of being late because the counselors want to keep as many clients as possible, in order to maximize their pay.

Other smaller examples of negative punishment would be removing allowed vacation days, decreasing employee benefits, or even decreasing pay of a tardy employee.

Negative punishment, according to the lecture, is most effective when it is given immediately and consistently. The punishment should be given the day that the employee was late. Alternate behavior must be specified as well in order for negative punishment to be effective. In this case, PA Counseling would explain to the late employee that they are being punished for their tardiness, and to instruct them to arrive on time to their appointments. The punishment must remain consistent for the undesirable behavior. It must be administered every time the employee is late, and to every employee so that the punishment is fair among all employees. Having an inconsistent punishment can be ineffective, and the undesirable behavior will most likely return.


B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who proposed the Reinforcement Theory (Operant Conditioning) through his studies of the external working environment so an organization can help shape employees’ behaviors to suit their desired needs.  PA Counseling Services can use reinforcement and punishments to curb their employees’ tardiness by increasing desired behaviors or by decreasing unwanted ones, so it does not affect their clients.  After evaluating their current policies, PA Counseling Services realized that their workers lacked motivation to show up to work on time because their pay was not hourly or based on caseloads. Their tardiness has become progressively worse as clients are left waiting thirty to over two hours waiting on a counselor.  Tardiness is an undesirable behavior to the employer and they seek a resolution to this matter.  Reinforcement can be given both as positive or negative stimuli to achieve the desired behavior by using the following four methods of Operant Conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement was used by PA Counseling Services through their new incentive program which allowed employees who show up to work early can have the first choice on caseloads. This not only motivated some employees to increase their punctuality but began encouraging some of them to show up fifteen minutes earlier so they can have their desired pick.  A monthly pool was also started where punctual employees could have their names placed into a drawing for a chance to win a $15 gift card.  A rewards program did excite some of the employees and strengthened the desired behavior, but PA Counseling management was still noticing that the rewards program did not encourage all to be timely.

Negative reinforcements would be the next implemented step in encouraging punctuality. Management tried to remove the stigma attached to employees feeling rushed, as if they were neglecting their loved ones. Employees who came in before 8:30am would receive a free coffee and a pastry. The new program would help employees to feel encouraged and empowered to come into work early and have breakfast. Employees did not respond as well to these stimuli and only a few employees took advantage of this program…the tardiness continued.

Positive punishment was the next step for PA Counseling Services as they created a new policy which included a verbal warning for the first tardy, a written warning for the second tardy, and a deduction in pay for the third tardy. A sharp turnaround in punctuality would take place when employees feared a loss of pay. Management was swift at implementation as they privately spoke to the late employees and dealt out their punishments. 

The final step for PA Counseling Services’ new policy plan for alleviating tardiness was to remove the stimulus of pay to employees who missed their client’s appointment. The cases would be removed from the late employee and switched to another available counselor. Pay would be removed and only given to employees who were on time for their clients. The punishment stimuli was administered privately and immediately after the undesired behavior.  They also noticed that consistency was a very important factor in reinforcing the appropriate working behaviors.  The Reinforcement Theory is a good general application tool for employers, but they must also keep in mind that employees are motivated by many factors.  B. F. Skinner’s theory does not account for the individual employee’s inner behaviors.


Beyer, J., & Trice, H. M. (1984). A field study on the use and perceived effects of discipline in controlling work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 27, 743-754.

Kanazawa, S. (2010). Common Misconceptions about Science VI: "Negative Reinforcement." Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Penn State World Campus Commentary (2014) Lesson 3: Reinforcement Theory: What are the Rewards for my Work? Retrieved from: 

McLeod, 2014. Skinner – Operant Conditioning. 

Introduction to Operant Conditioning. 

Punctual., 2014. 

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