The Validation Myth: Why Devices Don't Close the Honesty Gap

We're surprised how often we hear HR folks (and even the occasional seasoned wellness pro) suggest that requiring wellness challenge participants to wear a Fitbit - or Jawbone, Garmin, or any of dozens of other devices - will prevent cheating. It doesn't.


If there are bragging rights, you'll get a handful of cheaters. Add an incentive and you'll get more. Make it a rich incentive and you'll be surprised at some folks' creative abilities to game the system.

But preventing cheating shouldn't be the goal; it's the problem. When you require participants in a wellness program to "prove" they did this or that, you're saying we don't trust you. And when you tie validation of health activities to incentives/disincentives, you turn off a lot of people - often the employees who need your help most.

Want to limit corner cutters and flagrant fakers? Here's how:

  • Stop trying. That's right, let participants know up front that you're treating them like an adult. Tell them the device is simply a way for participants to gauge their own progress and have some fun. They can even and add to step counts manually on the dashboard, so if they want to record swim "steps," they can.
  • Emphasize enjoyment, camaraderie, and a chance to improve health in all communications. If most of what you're communicating is the rules, you've missed the mark. Tell them how this challenge/device can make their life better, not complicate it.
  • Be smart about incentives. Remember, your goal is health, not who can amass the most steps in a day, week, month, or over the course of the program. So set a reasonable threshold that's a stretch effort for most, then reward all (or give all a chance to win) who reach the milestone.

    Limit it to a $20 meaningful item. And hand out rewards personally with some flare instead of dropping them in the mail. The recognition will be remembered each time they pull on the t-shirt or pack the gym bag.
  • Share success stories of ordinary folks. Seeing Jane go from couch potato to 10,000 steps is more motivating to the masses than chronicling uber accomplishments of your marathon-running CEO. Emphasize how an active lifestyle has made a difference in how they feel, how they think about themselves, how they approach work - things everyone can relate to.

The beauty of tools like Fitbit is they can make starting and sticking with an exercise program more motivating and personally rewarding. Don't ruin it by trying to box people into so-called validated measures.

Should You Buy Your Employees a Tracking Device?

Every couple of years, the organization's VP or CEO gets really excited and decides everyone at XYZ Company should have a Fitbit, because after all, I love mine and I've lost 14 pounds in 2 months; therefore everyone will love them just like me.

For what should seem obvious, that's not a good reason to shell out $100 or more for the latest shiny thing. And it's an especially bad idea to do it with strings attached, like 1 million steps in 6 months to avoid a financial penalty or have a reduced health care premium.

But positioned correctly, supporting employee efforts to become more active on a consistent, long term basis with devices can be effective if:

  • The employee has some skin in the game. Subsidize half the cost (or more if you have lots of low-wage workers) so there's some built-in ownership.
  • Participation is optional. You can buy in if you want and you can participate in the challenge that goes along with it or not. And don't call it optional if it's really not. Giving rich incentives or setting department/organization participation goals that get communicated to supervisors make it involuntary.
  • You provide sensible guidelines. People get discouraged when they see others racking up 20,000-40,000 steps a day; they drop out if they feel they can't compete or measure up. Excessive daily steps also are a recipe for injury and burnout; suggest employees set a 3-day-average-steps baseline, then aim to increase daily steps by 1,000 each week, with a goal of consistently reaching 8,000-10,000 a day.

About the Author

Dean Witherspoon is the president and founder of Health Enhancement Systems, a U.S.-based organization that creates wellness competitions for organizations in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.