Are You Encouraging Cheating With Your Incentives Program?

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All over the news in the U.S. is a story about a cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools.

My understanding of the situation is that some teachers and administrators would gather for “erasure parties” to erase and re-enter correct answers on students’ standardized tests. Now, these educators are being jailed and prosecuted for fraud, and the reputation of the Atlanta Public Schools is ruined.

Why would teachers do this? Because the “No Child Left Behind” education policy rewards schools based on how students perform on these tests, especially for dramatic improvements.

From the news coverage, I understand there were great benefits to the educators making their schools appear much stronger in improving standardized test scores.

The unintended consequences of incentives

Why do I bring this up in a blog about strategic employee recognition? Because this is a classic example of the unintended consequences of incentives — “If you do this, you get that.” Or, in this case, “If you achieve X level of improvement, you get Y compensation bonus.

While certainly an egregious example – and I’m sure some participants felt heavily pressured to participate – this kind of thing happens in organizations all the time. Have you ever seen:

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  • Quality sacrificed in order to meet a delivery deadline that has a bonus attached to it?
  • Safety issues swept under the rug to achieve a “zero safety incidents” goal?
  • Peer pressure on colleagues to keep quiet about illegal or at least unethical practices of their colleagues?

The “how” is as important as the “what”

Incentives programs can play a role, but be careful about how you choose to implement them. Remember, it’s just as important to recognize the “how” – the way in which results are achieved (in line with your core values) – as well as the “what” – the results, themselves. Separating the two inevitably leads to the fulfillment of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Put your focus instead into strategic recognition  – “Now that you’ve achieved X, here’s surprise recognition and praise for your achievement.”

What other examples of unintended consequences have you seen in your career?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


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