by Jonathan Vatner | April 01, 2007

Dr. Brooks MitchellDr. Brooks Mitchell,  right, a professor at the University of Wyoming, has invented a new type of incentive program that incorporates people’s love of playing games of chance. His company, Snowfly, based in Laramie, Wyo., reinforces good behavior of all types by giving employees the chance to gamble for cash and prizes.

Here’s an example of how it might work: An employee who demonstrates a desired behavior (e.g., productivity or resolving a customer’s inquiry on first contact) receives a number of tokens, which are used to play a computer game. A single token can win up to $500, and all winnings are transferred to a Visa gift card.

“The idea comes from gambling, but it’s not legally gambling, because nothing is at risk for the employee,” said Mitchell, who noted that the concept, called “intermittent scheduled reinforcement,” derives from behavioral psychology and shows that people will be motivated if given a chance of winning a large payout.

One recent client is the Portland, Ore.-based Regence Group, a licensee of Blue Cross Blue Shield, which implemented a 1,400-employee pilot of Snowfly in October.

The rewards not only provide real-time reinforcement, they also eliminate any surprises when it comes time for the employee review.

“Before, you really didn’t understand what you were being evaluated on,” said Ryan Kenney, Regence’s director of human resources. “This encourages greater alignment with how employees think they’re doing and how the manager perceives it.”

According to Mitchell, the program has earned a 95 percent acceptance rate among employees.