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Incentives: Savvy Strategy or Poor Plan?

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OSHA Compliance Advisor

Bill Sims Behavior Change is a family-owned company that helps companies improve human performance through behavior and culture change initiatives.

“We help companies replace outdated lagging indicator incentive systems that cause people to hide behaviors with a next-generation approach that drives real behavior change,” says President Bill Sims.

His approach blends appropriate incentives with traditional behavior-based feedback and observation. It’s a formula that’s been used with leading employers, including Coca-Cola, Fluor Construction, DuPont, and International Paper.

“To say that incentives don’t work is hogwash,” offers Sims. Companies considering eliminating all rewards and incentives need to look first at executive compensation, which typically includes performance bonuses. “You can cling to your dogma if you’d like, and you’ll get there without incentives, but I’m going to get there about five times faster!”

Like Judy Agnew, Sims believes that rewarding lagging indicators can lead to underreporting and hiding injuries. He does acknowledge that incentive programs are a “convenient scapegoat” and are not the only culprit in suppressing injuries.

Another suppressor would be something like a CEO who announces that layoffs are coming and that employees with more than two injuries will be at the top of the list, or a company policy that requires injured employees to stand before co-workers and describe what they did wrong. When other employees see this, they vow to do anything to avoid similar humiliation.


Unique Hybrid

Sims’ goal is to tackle the safety problem with everything at his disposal. “We’ve examined the most successful behavior-based safety processes from the big names. We’ve looked at their strengths and their weaknesses.”

He’s combined those elements with the best in incentive systems to create a unique hybrid. “We’ve figured out (and have a patent pending on) systems and tools that allow you to complement a BBS [behavior-based safety] observation program with tangible reinforcers in a way that doesn’t hide or contaminate data.”

An example is the “You did it right™” card. This is an on-the-spot reinforcer that provides positive, immediate feedback for employees being observed. 

In a typical BBS encounter, the observer asks if he or she may conduct the observation before proceeding. Once under way, safe and at-risk behaviors are noted, and the observer might conclude with comments such as, “OK, thanks! I’ve observed that you’ve got your hard hat on, but I’m a little concerned that you’re not wearing your safety vest.”

Sims says the problem is the word “but,” which he calls a “verbal eraser,” negating the positive message that preceded it. That changes the nature of the observation, making it “punishment based” and causing a negative reaction.

In the Sims method, a positive observation is followed by delivery of a “You did it right” card. It acknowledges safe behavior and invites the recipient to cash the card in for an incentive that he or she chooses. Sims and others say that giving an employee a choice in the incentive is an essential component in achieving success. 

If the observer wishes to offer any negative observations (“I’m a little concerned that you’ve not wearing your safety vest”), this should be done in a separate encounter.


Green Beans and Ice Cream

Bill Sims makes the case for his hybrid method in a soon-to-be released book titled Green Beans and Ice Cream. It opens with the following passage:

At the ripe old age of three, I had sampled green beans and concluded they weren’t for me. Mom was my boss, and I was her newest employee. And we had a real management/labor crisis going on. She begged, she pleaded. But I was determined not to eat those green beans. And so, I crossed my arms, frowned, and pouted, figuring she’d give up like she had before. But Mom had a secret weapon.

This time there was something else on the table besides green beans …. ‘Billy Joe, if you eat your green beans you can have some ….’ You guessed it—ice cream! This sheer genius was, of course, the magic stroke that changed my behavior. In a flash, I saw those green beans not as an oppressive burden, but instead a golden passport to that lovely ice cream.

Sure enough, Mom got what she wanted, a balanced diet for her three year old. And I got ice cream. Pretty cool.

Readers can learn more about Sims and his methods at

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