Increase employee value and retention through reinforcement.

By Natalie Parks, PhD, BCBA-D

Guest Author

Employee recruitment, retention, and output have been long-standing issues with corporations of all kinds.  Employee turnover is hugely costly to any company, with costs ranging anywhere from one year’s salary to two year’s salary (Ramlall, 2004).  In addition to monetary costs, knowledge is lost with every turn over, which is now one of the most valuable assets of an organization.  As the world becomes more global, the job market is becoming more competitive and people are switching jobs and companies more than ever.  In the 2014 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, more than one-fourth of employees scored in the high-retention risk category, meaning they are at high risk for leaving the company.  The study also found that over half of all companies world-wide have a difficult time retaining their most marketable employees.  Marketing to and recruiting employees can be expensive and the additional costs of training and onboarding paired with the lost work time of turnover can be crippling to some companies.  Thus, it is important for companies to determine how to recruit and retain their employees, especially their most marketable ones.

As companies attempt to solve the problem of employee recruitment and retention, salary and compensation often enter the discussion.  Often times, companies do not have the ability to increase the salaries of everyone and are tied to rather strict budgets, making it difficult to provide more attractive compensation packages.  However, even though many companies spend a lot of time exploring ways to increase compensation, increased wages do not make the job more enjoyable or employees more likely to remain with a company.  In fact, there is less than a 2% overlap between pay and job satisfaction levels (Judge et al., 2010).  So why, then, do people stay with companies?  The best way to answer this question is to look at why people leave.

People are most likely to leave a job due to things happening within the business rather than the attractiveness of a position outside of the company (Branham, 2012).  Thus, to retain staff, businesses should turn their focus internally and examine their culture and how they value their employees.  Employees who feel valued and who come to work in a positive culture are likely to stay longer and work harder for the company.  Leaders are largely responsible for setting the tone of the culture and providing value to employees, making them responsible for employee happiness.  Effective leadership is essential to the success of an organization; however, the failure rate for leaders in American businesses ranges from 50-60% (Daniels & Daniels, 2007).  Additionally, most leaders receive less than 6 hours of training on how to be a leader, if any training is provided.  Adding to the issue, those who attempt to teach themselves strong leadership skills may get overwhelmed by the thousands of books on leadership, each with a different set of skills and definitions for leadership.  The task of mastering the skills to be a great leader and to motivate, encourage, and value employees can be daunting at best.

However, there is one field that has researched leadership skills and has provided effective principles, that when followed, can increase employee happiness, motivation, and, ultimately, longevity with the company.  This field is behavior analysis, the scientific study of principles of learning and behavior (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007).  While effective leadership requires a complex set of skills, there are two, very simple procedures that when used, can immediately and substantially improve the culture of the work environment and increate the motivation, happiness, and value of employees – reinforcement and schedules of reinforcement.

Reinforcement is anything that occurs after a behavior that increases the likelihood of that behavior.  Simply put, when something positive happens or something negative is removed as a result of a behavior, that behavior is more likely to happen again in the future.  For example, if I present a new idea in a meeting and my boss tells me what an awesome idea it is and allows me to explore it further, I am more likely to present an idea the next time I have one.  Conversely, if my boss ignores my suggestion or tells me it is a bad idea or not my place to offer this idea, I am less likely to present new ideas.  This latter example is not reinforcement; instead it is extinction or punishment, respectively.  Both of which decrease behavior rather than increase it.

Reinforcement can work in two ways: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.  Some have argued the distinction between the two types of reinforcement is not relevant (Baron & Galizio, 2005), but instead it is important to know that when undesirable things are removed and/or desirable things are added, the behavior that accomplished it will likely happen again.  Reinforcement can be something small or something large.  Reinforcers can range from hand written thank you notes, bonuses, removal of boring tasks, public recognition, or spending additional time with an employee.

Reinforcement is easy to do and can be used each and every day to encourage and motivate staff.  Good leaders use reinforcement by providing positive feedback, saying thank you, and recognizing staff for their hard work.  The key to using reinforcement effectively is to ensure the following:

  1. It must be genuine.  Do not tell someone they did an awesome job if they actually did not.
  2. It must be specific.  Do not just say “you’re a rock star”.  Instead, tell the person exactly why they are a rock star.  You might say something like “Your presentation was well put together, thought provoking, and delivered seamlessly.”
  3. It should be immediate.  Provide the feedback as quickly as you can following the behavior.  The closer in time you can deliver it, the more likely it is to be paired with the right behavior (and not something that happened afterwards).
  4. It should happen often.  Reinforcement should be given all the time.  Employees should receive consistent feedback and praise for their hard work.  Do not wait until something spectacular happens or when you have to provide formal feedback (such as during evaluations) to use reinforcement.  If it does not happen enough, it is less likely to have an effect on behavior.

When reinforcement is genuine, immediate, provided often, and the employee knows exactly what behavior resulted in reinforcement, employee motivation and value increases.  Employees know what they are doing right and know that their supervisors are taking the time to notice and recognize their hard work.

Schedules of reinforcement refer to when the reinforcement is provided, and can affect how strong the behavior becomes and how likely it is to continue, even when you are not able to provide reinforcement each and every time.  There are two general schedules of reinforcement that can be used to first strengthen a new behavior and then maintain that behavior over time: continuous schedules and variable schedules.

A continuous schedule of reinforcement is one that happens each time the behavior occurs.  For example, every time an idea is offered, the leader may acknowledge it and thank the employee for offering ideas.  Continuous schedules of reinforcement are excellent ways to increase and strengthen new skills.  It is good to use this type of schedule during employee onboarding and orientation or when training a new skill.  This schedule provides immediate feedback to the employee when the skill is performed correctly.

A variable schedule of reinforcement means that reinforcement occurs more unpredictably.  It may occur after the behavior is seen twice or five times or maybe even ten times.  The number of times the behavior occurs before reinforcement is provided changes each time so that there is not a predictable pattern to when reinforcement occurs.  For example, let’s say an employee is responsible for submitting billing each week.  After two weeks of submitting timely billing documents, the leader stops by the employee’s desk and says thank you for attention to this task and for submitting on time.  After another 5 weeks, the same things happen.  The following week, the leader may stop by and deliver a personal “thank you” note.  The employee is still submitting billing on time each week, but he/she receives positive feedback about it at unpredictable times.  Variable schedules are best used once skills are mastered and ensure skills are maintained over time.  It is best to slowly increase the number of times a behavior must be demonstrated before receiving feedback to ensure that maintenance of the skill maintains over time.

Let’s put these two principles together into an example.  You just hired a new administrative assistant who is in charge of answering potential consumer calls.  During training, the administrative assistant is provided a script to read each time a call is answered.  The first time the trainee reads the script correctly, the trainer provides positive feedback “that was perfect!”.  The second time, the trainer does the same thing.  And after the third time the script is read perfectly, the trainer allows the new employee to leave early for the day.  Now the employee is fully trained and ready for the first real client call.  The next morning the employee reads the script perfectly and the leader provides positive feedback (“that was really great.  You read the script perfectly and sounded happy to talk with the consumer”).  The employee then does two more calls and the supervisor again provides positive feedback.  After another 5 calls, feedback is again provided.  Finally, the employee completes another 7 calls and the leader gives the employee a $5 gift card for doing all calls perfectly on the first day after training.  On the third, the leader checks in and provides feedback for the employee arriving on time and beginning work immediately.  The leader then stops by at lunch to listen to a call (the 4th of the day) and provides positive feedback again.  At the end of the day the leader sends a quick email to the employee providing positive feedback for the employee’s effort, consistency, and work thus far.  This pattern continues for the next two days.  At the end of the first week, the employee has completed dozens of calls and has received reinforcement on a variable schedule.  The number of times reinforcement is provided can further be decreased over the next several weeks as the employee continues to demonstrate success.  While this process may seem intensive, especially for those leaders who have several employees, it will ensure that the employee not only masters the necessary skills for the job, but also feels valued and supported; the very things that are tied to employee longevity.

Employee retention is necessary for any business to thrive.  Retention is tied to employee happiness, motivation, and value.  Leaders are largely responsible for creating a culture that values, motivates, and retains employees.  Reinforcement is one easy and highly effective way to not only increase employee satisfaction, but also to increase and maintain the skills necessary for the business.  Leaders who master when and how to provide reinforcement have staff who remain with the company longer because they are happier and feel more valued.

How have you utilized reinforcement in your organization?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles in your inbox!


Baron, A., & Galizio, M.  (2005).  Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?  The Behavior Analyst, 28(2), 85-98.

Branham, L.  (2012).  The 7 hidden reasons employees leave: How to recognize the subtle signs and act before it’s too late.  AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L., (2007).  Applied behavior analysis.

Daniels, A. C., & Daniels, J. E.  (2007).  Measure of a leader.

Judge, T., Piccolo, R., Podsakoff, N., Shaw, J., & Rich, B.  (2010).  The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A mega-analysis of the literature.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 157-167.

Ramlall, S.  (2004).  A review of employee motivation theories and their implications for employee retention within organizations.  Journal of American Academy of Business, 5(1/2), 52-63.

Reid, D. H., & Parsons, M. B.  (2000).  Organizational behavior maangement in human service settings.  In J. Austin & J. E. Carr (Eds.), Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis (pp. 275-294).  Oakland, CA: Context Press.

Natalie Parks, Ph.D., BCBA-D is president of Pulse Business Strategies LLC, which provides business and leadership consulting.  Natalie has been working in the field of behavior analysis for over 18 years and has experience working with individuals with disabilities as well as organizations and leaders of organizations.  Her current focus is in the business world providing support and structure for new businesses and training for leaders of all levels.  You can learn more about her programs at or or contact her directly at [email protected].



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