A recent USA Today front-page article skewering corporate motivational programs painted a biased and incomplete picture, incentive industry spokespeople say.

The report, headlined “Firms spend billions to fire up workers — with little luck,” said that the motivation industry continues to explode but that more than half of employees in corporate America can muster no enthusiasm for their work. It described some of the more sensational motivation practices (such as firewalking), then questioned whether these efforts influence the company's bottom line. Despite a proliferation of “those getting rich motivating workers,” the reporter claimed, “there has been exhaustive academic research trying to find out what motivates workers, and it has turned up almost no evidence that motivational spending makes any difference.”

Jill Harrington, executive vice president and CEO of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (www.site-intl.org), responded by saying the article selectively chose statistics without putting them into the context of a broader employee motivation strategy. “Incentives are only one piece of the overall employee motivation strategy,” she says. “If there is no strong management support, no healthy culture, if employees are not given the salary or tools they need, no incentive program is going to work. Telling people to walk across hot coals with no other form of employee support is not going to change them overnight. That's ludicrous.”

Harrington says she thinks the article “was written to cause a stir” and that it will confuse the public about companies' efforts. In a rebuttal, she admitted that some organizations, “with the best of intentions, throw together motivation programs without placing them in an overarching context.”

SITE is working on ways to help companies measure the return on investment of their incentive and motivation programs.

Motivation expert Bob Nelson, who was contacted for the story, recalls that “the reporter very clearly knew what he wanted to say before he talked to anyone.” Nelson, a Corporate Meetings & Incentives columnist and president of San Diego-based Nelson Motivation (www.nelson_motivation.com), says he wasn't asked for evidence of whether motivation techniques work. He would have cited his recent doctoral dissertation — which shows clear links between recognition and performance — and a mountain of anecdotal evidence supporting the value of happy employees.

The article reflected misconceptions about how people factor into the profit equation, Nelson says. “You can maximize your return on investment and your use of equipment, but where there's an unlimited potential is through your people,” he says. “A lot of people just don't believe that or think it's hocus pocus — but it's very real.”

Nelson doesn't see the article changing opinions about what he and his colleagues do. “We have a steady stream of people who know we get them results.”