Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2013

The Dirty Laundry of Employee Award Programs: Evidence from the Field

by Timothy Gubler, Ian I. Larkin and Lamar Pierce

Abstract

Many scholars and practitioners have recently argued that corporate awards are a "free" way to motivate employees. We use field data from an attendance award program implemented at one of five industrial laundry plants to show that awards can carry significant spillover costs and may be less effective at motivating employees than the literature suggests. Our quasi-experimental setting shows that two types of unintended consequences limit gains from the reward program. First, employees strategically game the program, improving timeliness only when eligible for the award, and call in sick to retain eligibility. Second, employees with perfect pre-program attendance or high productivity suffered a 6-8% productivity decrease after program introduction, suggesting they were demotivated by awards for good behavior they already exhibited. Overall, our results suggest the award program decreased plant productivity by 1.4%, and that positive effects from awards are accompanied by more complex employee responses that limit program effectiveness.

Keywords: Motivation and Incentives; Service Delivery; Performance Productivity; Failure; Service Industry;

Citation:

Gubler, Timothy, Ian I. Larkin, and Lamar Pierce. "The Dirty Laundry of Employee Award Programs: Evidence from the Field." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-069, February 2013.