by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

On a flight from Portland to Denver, our row in the cheap seats was filled with 4 burly guys and 2 average-size ladies. When the door to the plane was closed, one of the gentlemen got up to relocate to an empty row in front of us (not first class) — as has been the practice in airline travel forever. The following exchange took place between him and the flight attendant:

“Where are you going?”

“Up to the empty row.”

“You didn’t pay for that seat, did you?”

“No. But the door is closed and I thought…”

“It doesn’t matter. You didn’t pay for that seat. You need to go back to your seat.”

After a brief pause and with a quizzical look, “Really?”

“Yes, go back to your seat.”

All 6 of us in the row looked at each other, half expecting the hidden camera to be revealed proving we had been punked. But my seatmate’s inquiry with a different flight attendant minutes later met with the same response; you get what you pay for.

The second leg of my trip from Denver to Bozeman on another airline was quite different. The plane was full, so switching seats after the door was closed didn’t come into play. But each employee — from the gate agent, to the flight attendant, to the captain (as we disembarked) — pleasantly thanked us for our business. A small thing, but given the stark contrast with the previous encounter just 2 hours earlier, it made a huge impression.

A little over a week later I came across customer satisfaction and profitability data in the airline industry. You guessed it: The company that treated customers courteously and sensibly were near the top of the charts, while the grouchy pants airline occupied the bottom spot.

Coincidence? Maybe. But you can bet the 6 people in our row will avoid the first airline whenever the cost is close. As I think about it, maybe that’s why there were so many empty seats in the first place. You treat your customers poorly, they walk (figuratively speaking).

There’s a lesson for wellness managers everywhere. If you’re using disincentives (or inadequately designed incentives) for participating or achieving preset biometric goals, you’re treating your customers poorly. They’re going to leave and not come back.

Indeed, recent industry surveys show that even with rich incentive schemes and/or disincentives built in, wellness program participation is slipping. You used to be able to offer $500-$1000 for this or that and get 80%+ to take you up on whatever hoops you’d asked them to jump through. Not anymore. Increasingly, people are saying: It’s not worth it; just leave me alone.

But if we don’t offer incentives, we get less than 20% participation!! is the common retort. To which we answer: Your goal is health (or well-being, or quality of life), not wellness program signups. This is where common sense comes in. What seems to have been lost in the halls of HR over the last 15 years or so is that you really don’t care who or how many people sign up for your wellness program (GASP!). What you care about is if people are healthy, engaged, and performing at their best — today, and over the course of their employment at your organization.

What to do

It’s pretty simple… treat people the way you want to be treated.

  • Do you want to be bribed or coerced to change your behavior, or would you prefer the tools, resources, and positive support of an organization with your best interests in mind?
  • Do you want to be poked and prodded annually to assess your health and have mainly arbitrary standards set for you, or would you prefer the opportunity to voluntarily participate in fantastic programs that let you rally around colleagues and family members, giving and getting support for positive change? 
  • Do you want to be treated like a circus monkey, tipping your hat for a quarter when you complete a program evaluation (and get another $50 gift card), or would you prefer a pat on the back and genuine congratulations for having achieved a personal well-being milestone, knowing someone is happy for you?
  • Do you want an auto-generated “we miss you” email because you haven’t signed into the wellness portal for 2 weeks, or would you prefer a friend drop by and ask you to rejoin the noon walking group you dropped out of last month?
  • Do you want a phone call from a health coach on the other side of the country whose primary objective is to meet the set number of contacts in a month, or would you prefer buddying up with a friend or colleague who has similar health goals and life ambitions to work together toward a common goal?
  • Do you want to be micromanaged in a toxic work environment with a stress management program to help you cope, or would you prefer a reasonable workload and more autonomy in getting it done?

Helping individuals change health behaviors isn’t easy. And changing the health of a population is really hard. Don’t make it harder by treating your customers poorly and implementing a model devoid of common sense.


# Rebecca Johnson 2016-04-11 12:26
Excellent, Dean! Love your airline story. For anyone interested in reading a great book on this topic, check out "Firms of Endearment". It's chock fulls of case studies of organizations who treat employees like capable adults, create the conditions where employees thrive (no incentives involved!), value all stakeholders in the business equally, make a positive impact on society - AND are extremely profitable.
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# Sue Perry 2016-03-30 18:21
I couldn't agree more! Thank you so much for putting such a thoughtful article out to inspire us all. I have followed those guidelines in the 8 years I have been Wellness Coordinator for the City of Santa Fe, and nothing makes me happier than an employee thanking me for the wonderful programs we provide (offer and not force).
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# Michelle Villmer 2016-03-30 13:41
I absolutely love this. Just when I think things are getting overencumbered and the financial incentives are overflowing you have a timely article that tells me there IS light at the end of the tunnel.
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# MJ Shaar 2016-03-29 23:52
YES, YES, YES! Can we raise funds somehow and put that on billboards through the country, maybe?

More good stuff! ;-)

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