It seemed like an epic blunder: United Airlines announced that it was replacing a standard bonus with a lottery that would give nothing to most of its roughly 90,000 workers while awarding lavish prizes, like $100,000 in cash and Mercedes-Benz sedans, to a few lucky winners.
United had hoped the sweepstakes approach would "build excitement and a sense of accomplishment." But after workers deluged the company with hostile comments, the airline said last week that it was "pressing the pause button on these changes."
The fiasco pulled back the curtain on the widespread use of gamelike techniques for motivating employees.
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While employers have relied on such practices for decades, the methods have become increasingly sophisticated in an age when companies can collect more data about employee behavior than ever before, and as video game technology has proliferated.
Defenders say such practices can be useful — if they are designed to make employees feel more engaged and invested in their work, not to save money. But to skeptics, the United program illustrated a deeper problem with game-like motivational methods.
"Shareholders and management get the monetary rewards, and 'meaning' and 'excitement' are consolation prizes that go to workers," said Caitlin Petre, an assistant professor of media studies at Rutgers University who has examined similar practices at media companies. "This is very much in line with my understanding of how the gamification trend in workplaces operates."