Giving the Dream: Reciprocity in HR

Imagine you go outside to check your mailbox and find a somewhat nondescript envelope with your name on it. Curious, you open the envelope to find a survey that promises $50 upon completion. This deal almost sounds too good to be true. If you complete the survey, will you even get the money after all is said and done? You assume there’s got to be a caveat, like “eligible for first 25 [of one gazillion] respondents.” Not sure whether it’s worth it, you put the envelope and its contents in the ever-growing paper stack on the kitchen counter. Maybe you’ll respond. Maybe you won’t.

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You were likely first introduced to the Golden Rule shortly after you learned how to form sentences – maybe even before. Since childhood, we’ve been encouraged to treat others the way we’d like to be treated. Years later, you may have experienced the concept in the form of a “You owe me one” or a reference to karma. Though nobody’s outwardly keeping score, that’s the nature of social interaction. We remember what others have done for us, and we aim to even the score when the opportunity arises.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Now, envision the same nondescript envelope appears in your mailbox. Upon opening it, you discover the same request to complete a survey, but instead of the promised future reward of $50, you find cash-money. Moola. Cheddar. It’s only five bucks, so it’s not like you’re drafting your resignation letter, but it’s still a pleasant surprise. As you put the money in your wallet, you reach for a pen to begin answering questions. After all, you’ll feel a twinge of guilt if you spend the fiver on a fancy cup of coffee and never look twice at the survey. You pop the completed survey in the postage-paid envelope and drop it in the mailbox five dollars richer.

A study published in 1992 tested the impact of monetary incentives on survey completion. The surveys were mailed to construction business owners to learn more about their companies’ health insurance plans. Almost 21% of recipients responded when the survey was mailed with no incentive whatsoever. When promised $50 upon completion of the survey, the response rate was just a smidge higher (about 23%). The difference was insignificant. However, if the initial envelope included $5 cash, the response rate jumped to almost 50%. Why the drastic change?

The response rate wasn’t dependent upon the monetary reward; instead, it was based on social currency: the law of reciprocity. When $5 was given up front, people felt a certain obligation to respond; they felt indebted – maybe even trusted. Though the promised $50 future reward was significantly higher in value, there was no duty to respond. The survey was optional, and nothing had been given at the onset to instill an inherent agreement.

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“Whether it’s conscious or not, there’s some reciprocity that happens — employees think, ‘I’m going to do what’s right for my company because the company is looking out for my best interest.'” -Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and well-being.

It’s human nature to want to give back to those who have given to us, and this includes the employer-employee relationship. Many of the factors that improve employee engagement and well-being are built upon the concept of reciprocity. When employers are honest, employees develop feelings of trust. If the company supports its employees, the sentiment will likely be echoed. If employers show compassion and respect, employees will feel compelled to do the same. When given a user-friendly employee handbook that obviously took effort to craft, employees will feel more compelled to read it.

When employees believe their employer has their back, they want to respond accordingly – to reciprocate. Sometimes you must give a little before you can expect the same in return. Though cash in your mailbox would be nice, a thriving company culture is priceless.

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.


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