Work Incentives

As the nation industrialized in the late 1800s, companies became bigger and more efficient but also more impersonal. As some workers organized to raise pay and improve working conditions, managers sought to motivate employees and shape their work ethic with an array of incentives and techniques. They pushed employees to work faster, longer, and more safely, and to not join labor unions. Managers also desired innovation, sharing of ideas, and increased employee contentment. 

In preindustrial America, farmers and artisans owned their own tools and managed their own production. They did not need incentives because they worked for themselves.

Farmer and sheaf of wheat, 1860s

Farmer and sheaf of wheat, 1860s

Silversmith Paul Revere, by John Copley, 1768

Silversmith Paul Revere, by John Copley, 1768

Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Joseph W. Revere, William B. Revere, and Edward H.R. Revere

Work Incentive Posters

In the 1920s a new generation of managers began to use posters to communicate ideas to workers. Posters, like the advertising art on which they were based, combined attractive graphics with clever words to convey managers’ messages. By the 1980s companies began using a new tool—mission statements—reminding workers of corporate values. In a break from the past, many of the modern messages were directed toward mid-level managers, not hourly workers.

Poster, Charles Mather & Company, 1923

Poster, Charles Mather & Company, 1923

Gift of Emanuel Gerard

"Strive" Poster, Mosby-Great Performance, Inc., 1995

Gift of Mosby-Great Performance

Instructional sign, Imperial Food Products, 1996

Instructional sign, Imperial Food Products, 1996

Gift of Imperial Food Products, Inc.

Mission statement wallet card, AT&T and NCR, around 1995

Mission statement wallet card, AT&T and NCR, around 1995

Gift of Anthony Priest

Awards

Recognition programs cost companies relatively little but often significantly boost employee morale and customer awareness. By creating teams and a collective feel, managers seek to increase camaraderie, gain valuable ideas, and encourage employees to motivate each other. The strategy also reduced the need for oversight and transferred some of the burden of enforcing discipline to the workers.

Competitions

A paycheck is important but not the only way to inspire loyalty and hard work. Employee competitions, and the resulting peer recognition, are one of the oldest forms of worker incentives.

Denise Kucharskis’s Queen of Sales pin, Mary Kay Cosmetics, 1983

Denise Kucharskis’s Queen of Sales pin, Mary Kay Cosmetics, 1983

Gift of Denise Kucharskis

Sherman Naidorf’s Legion of Honor sales award, Burroughs Corporation, 1950s

Sherman Naidorf’s Legion of Honor sales award, Burroughs Corporation, 1950s

Gift of Sherman L. Naidorf

Johnie Knowles’s Productivity award, Chic Blue Jeans, 1996

Johnie Knowles’s Productivity award, Chic Blue Jeans, 1996

Gift of Henry I. Siegel Company, Inc.

Pay and Perks

Offering performance-based bonuses, stock options, and pay based on units produced often has a big impact on workers’ and even owners’ efforts. But welfare capitalism, where companies provide services not just pay, often does even more. Giving workers perks like recreational clubs, subsidized lunch, and company outings help instill company values and thereby boost productivity. Additionally, having food or other services handy means that workers tend to stay in the building and work more.

Women's lunch room, United Shoe Machinery Corporation, 1915

Women's lunch room, United Shoe Machinery Corporation, 1915

Gift of United Shoe Machine Corporation

E-Trade founder Bill Porter’s first share of company stock, 1996                                                    

E-Trade founder Bill Porter’s first share of company stock, 1996                                                    

Gift of William A. Porter and M. Joan Porter

Coal company scrip, Liberty Trading Company, 1920s 

Coal company scrip, Liberty Trading Company, 1920s 

Picker’s token counting units produced, around 1900

Picker’s token counting units produced, around 1900

Gift of Emma M. Schramm

Food cup and napkin, Bloomberg L.P., 2014

Food cup and napkin, Bloomberg L.P., 2014

Gift of Bloomberg L.P.

Employees’ annual picnic badge, Booth and Company, 1920

Employees’ annual picnic badge, Booth and Company, 1920