Do bonuses influence safe behavior?

Geplaatst op by juni

Many methods are used to promote safe behavior. Companies that work with a bonus system often use part of that bonus to encourage safe working. An annual bonus is set for the employees based on the number of incidents. Two questions arise: Is a bonus payment a motivating force for safe behavior and what are the side effects of this policy? 

The theory behind bonuses

Managing behavior through bonuses comes from Anglo-Saxon ideology. Rewarding and punishing are its core principles. The theoretical basis, Behaviorism, was laid by Skinner. It is scientifically well founded. In his view, behavior is strengthened if the sum of the consequences is positive and weakened if that sum is negative. Behavior Based Safety is based on this principle. Behaviorism states that there are two crucial conditions that make reward (and punishment) effective:

  1. The employee has to experience a link between the behavior and the consequences. He has to know which behavior is rewarded and which is not.
  2. There must be a link in time between behavior and effect. The sooner the reward follows the behavior, the greater the effect.

Are these two conditions present when awarding a bonus?

Direct link between behavior and consequence

The objective by which a bonus can be achieved is usually formulated in the number of incidents per period. The goal therefore does not refer to a desired behavior but to the absence of an incident. For the employee there is usually no relationship between his own behavior and an incident somewhere in the organization. The bonus therefore rewards something indefinable and does not reinforce safe behavior. One does not learn what one should do more or better.

Link in time

The same can be said about the link in time. A bonus aims to activate the reward center in the brain. This center then sends signals to recent behavioral patterns that have contributed to the pleasure. These behavioral patterns are thereby strengthened. However, with a bonus that is only paid out after months, there are no recent patterns. There is nothing to strengthen. The learning effect is therefore minimal.

Even if it is not effective, is it actually damaging?

In summary, an annual bonus does not reinforce concrete behavior and if there is an effect, this is in fact limited. This is questionable when you consider that a bonus for save behavior entails 200 to 400 Euros per year per employee. So is this only a waste of money or can there een be a counterproductive negative effect?

Bonus or punishment?

A first concern is how the safety bonus is experienced. Productivity starts at zero and grows to a certain level. In this case one would get a bonus if productivity is high enough. You can also take it a step further. There is some sense of control. A safety objective, on the other hand, has been formulated in a negative way. Here too, employees start at zero, but eachincident reduces the score. If a serious incident takes place somewhere in the organization, every employee loses the right to a bonus. Kahneman has taught us that we all experience loss aversion. The employee experiences this loss as unfair, however he is deemed to have failed. He can do nothing more. It feels like a reward is being taken away. This leads to frustration and irritation. It often leads to the search for a guilty party. The safety target is thus presented in a negative perspective.

Bonuses corrupt

Another concern is that a safety bonus also evokes undesired behavior. Money can work as a rewarder, but can also bring out the worst in people. After all, the bonus is partly determined on the basis of data that employees provide themselves. This is asking for problems. Son a discussion will arise about the seriousness of the incident. The difference between a scratch or medical treatment is not always clearly defined, but the effect on the bonus is great. And if someone sprains his ankle, it can be “agreed” that the accident took place at home. With regard to the ankle it does not matter, but for the wallet it is profoundly significant. The tension surrounding the achievement of targets translates into a social pressure to keep quiet, “the conspiracy of silence”. In other words, the bonus is a temptation to manipulate both data and colleagues. As a result, the figures are no longer correct, wrong conclusions are drawn and inappropriate policy is formulated.

In summary

Despite the fact that the bonus is widely applied in relation to safety, it cannot boast any substantiation and has adverse effects. It disrupts employees’ motivation and the policy making process within the organization.

Reward positive behavior

Would there be a better application for the bonus budget? The possibilities lie within the promotion of safety initiatives. This suggestion corresponds with Hollnagels Safety II concept. Invite employees to come up with proposals and reward the good ones. Initiate reward safety initiativesthis directly after assessing the proposal. Make the reward higher if the proposal falls outside the direct context of the immediate function (“out of the box” thinking) and if its
particular impact on safety is greater. Such proposals truly reflect commitment to safety. Use the rest of the money to finance the proposals. Then at least we shall know for sure that the money is well invested and the organization becomes safer.


Juni Daalmans

september 2018


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