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Our company has a wellness contest to promote healthy lifestyle and well being. The contest is focused around how much physical activity you perform. (For example, 1 mile run = 10 points). The top 3 individuals with the most points at the end of the contest get a nice cash prize. 1st place gets a whopping $3000.

The person who organized this contest has left the company, and I was put in charge.

While this contest has good intentions, the way it was setup is beyond stupid. Essentially, you can put whatever you want in the system, and there's no way to verify or check if you're uploading accurate information. I could put that I climbed Mt Everest today, but don't need to provide any proof, and I'll instantly shoot to the top of the leaderboard.

Because this is a huge cash prize, people are getting really into it. Tempers are flaring now as some people are (understandably) claiming that other individuals are cheating. Some examples are:

  • A very obese man (he says he is 415 lbs) has claimed to run a marathon with a pace of 5:18 a mile.
  • An individual who worked an 8 hour day on Monday claimed to have run for 16 hours on that same day (and then repeated this feat on Tuesday and Thursday of the same week).
  • A woman who is probably 5'0" and thin as a rail (I'm guessing no more than 100 lbs) claimed to have bench pressed 360 lbs.
  • A man in his early 70s claimed to have finished 2 Ironman Triatholons in a 3 day period

Now, I'm no fitness buff and I suppose that all of these are conceivably possible. But people are crying BS on these results and I tend to agree with them. Given the large cash prize, things are getting really heated. I really don't want to deal with this, but unfortunately I have to because I've been put in charge.

Is it better to just award these individuals with far-fetched data and deal with everybody else getting mad at me? Or is it better to confront these individuals or disqualify them for clearly cheating? How can I approach this situation professionally?

EDIT

Thanks all for the feedback. Just wanted to give a quick update.

I decided to disqualify the individuals I was sure were cheating, and so they didn't win any money. For better or for worse, they've all provided irrefutable evidence to me that they were telling the truth all along. Now my boss has enrolled me in sensitivity training and I'm on disciplinary probation.

Well, lesson learned, I guess...

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    How strong was the commitment to give the money in prizes? Clearly, people are making fun of the silly competition. The obvious solution is to shut it down, but is that legally possible? – Patricia Shanahan Aug 22 at 7:34
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    Have you spoken to the manager/boss responsible for the program, or the person who authorized the prize money? If not, why not? If yes, what did they say? This seems clearly manager-level territory. – sleske Aug 22 at 12:20
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    This question makes a really great case study for why you should use a qualified, reputable vendor to run your employee wellness program. Incentives are proven to work (in that they result in reduced healthcare costs) when implemented well. Clearly, here, we have an example of the opposite happening. – dwizum Aug 22 at 12:46
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the edit strains credibility to the point I'm all but certain we're being trolled. – Dan Neely Aug 27 at 10:32
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    I agree, it's a troll - i'm a 3 hour marathon runner and can barely run one 5:18 mile, that pace would win most marathons outside of the very top tier events. I guess irrefutable proof would be a trophy. – strmqm Aug 27 at 11:12

16 Answers 16

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Obviously not everyone is taking the contest seriously because it is so open to abuse.

Hell if I was the obese guy and you had a "one size fits all" program why would I take it seriously? At 415 pounds I'm probably not going to run a marathon so how can I compete with the guy who can? At 5 foot and 100 pounds she probably isn't going to benchpress as much as someone else.

Sounds like the program/competition is a joke and people are treating it that way. The best solution would be to try to shut down the program - perhaps use the planned prize money for other related things (subsidized membership at a local gym or similar)

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    This is probably the best answer. Running a wellness program as a competition is getting the opposite of what you want. For people who aren't already super fit, It'll just reinforce the idea that they aren't good enough and there's no point to exercise, because the fit people are better anyway and will clearly win the prize. All of their effort in trying to improve themselves is a waste of time (within the scope of the competition). – Erik Aug 22 at 5:24
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    @Erik Fully agree - the solution I've seen working well before is to level the playing field between who is already fit and who is trying to improve by choosing the right measure. In that case, they chose reduction of % fat and increase of % muscle mass (2 different prizes) and everybody had to be measured at the same place within one week time frame, this was spanning 6 months. No surprise, there were some fantastic results - the winner from % fat reduction dropped 70 pounds and is still very fit to this day – Juliana Karasawa Souza Aug 22 at 7:23
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    @JulianaKarasawaSouza "Reduction of % fat" is still a bad metric for an office competition. For somebody who's already very lean, losing fat can be harmful, and diets that offer short-term weight loss often lead to long-term health problems. This just isn't something that ought to be made into a high-stakes office contest. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 22 at 11:52
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    From the OP is seems the original idea was to award cash prizes. A Machiavellian way to close this down and shame the cheaters would be to change the prizes into non-transferrable wellness related awards. A week in a residential luxury health spa with all the optional extras might well cost $3000 if you include travel expenses as well. Make it clear that you are going to inform the spa organizers in advance how wonderfully fit and active the lucky winner is before they accept the offer - and that you will be featuring this in the company's next newsletter, annual report, or whatever :) – alephzero Aug 22 at 13:40
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    @alephzero I'm not sure running a competition, which is blatantly unfair and counter-productive, and then shaming the people who entered flippant entries, is going to produce a good outcome for the company – matt freake Aug 22 at 16:34
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Is it better to just award these individuals with far-fetched data and deal with everybody else getting mad at me?

No, because then the biggest liar wins. Two wrongs (your predecessor not setting the competition right, and the employees lying) does not make a right.

Or is it better to confront these individuals or disqualify them for clearly cheating?

Unless you have loads of spare time to enter into every sort of quibbles that will arise, do not do it. Given the way people have behaved, this will soon change shape from who can lie the most to who can push the boundaries the most.

How can I approach this situation professionally?

First of all, measure the blast radius. How big is your organization? How many employees have participated in good faith? How many people are simply boasting? any kind of raw numbers will help.

Next, depending on this blast radius, you need to decide whether you want to save the program, or kill it.


You should try saving this program only if

(a) you have small number of employees - everybody knows everybody, so you try to award to the best guy and everybody just honestly accepts it

(b) the number of instances of people lying are low enough, that you can still institute a mechanism for people to prove they did it. This could be certificates from the gym, marathon organizers, or their smart watch history

(c) the employees who have participated in good faith are a very significant number, and would feel completely dejected if you were to cancel this event - you should try changing the rules - such as stopping new entries and instituting a jury to give the award in this case.

Do think of an appropriate communication for either of these scenario.


If you have decided to shut it down completely, think of what all you may want to do with that extra amount of money. This could be setting up a couple of treadmills, table tennis, or some other office gratification. Try to make it group based than individual based.

Use the childish behavior of the employees against them, to cancel the event. Use the language that you use in the question, and explain the truth to everyone why you are cancelling it. As others have suggested, check with HR first. Use a communication along the lines of

Dear all,

As you all are aware, our company had started a wellness contest to promote healthy lifestyle and well being. The focus of the contest was on how much physical activity you perform. We were expecting this to be a fun way of promoting health awareness among all.

Unfortunately, while this contest had good intentions, we have observed increased instances of some people putting up unverifiable and unrealistic claims, which has created an environment of mistrust and disbelief.

Hence, We have decided to shut the program with immediate effect. In recompense, we have decided to ##insert your options here##.

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Forget the competition. Corporate environments are competitive enough without pitting people who are already in great shape against people who could actually stand to benefit. The person who organized it is gone and you’re left with a sizable budget to promote health and wellness in the workplace. Use it how you see fit.

One idea that comes to mind is to organize a series of classes and workshops that promote different aspects of wellness. You could alternate between exercise, stress reduction techniques, lifestyle habits, etc.

  • 1st place gets $3,000. The budget must have been higher to accommodate 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes. – MonkeyZeus Aug 22 at 15:08
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The person who organized this contest has left the company, and I was put in charge.

Step 1 Gather all the data showing the flaws in the program.

Step 2 Arrange a meeting with the manager that assigned you this task.

Step 3 Present data and suggest that management needs to relieve you of oversight of this contest.

The program as you describe it massively flawed. It was poorly designed to prevent cheating, it was poorly designed which resulted in a miss-match between how points were assigned and the goals of a wellness program.

Management must have approved this contest. They must have agreed to spend money and resources on this project. Now with the flaws fully exposed, management needs to come up with an exit plan.

Because somebody approved the contest, and then assigned you the task when the original organizer left, they need to be the one that develops the exit strategy and handles the fallout.

Designing a fair way to end the program and distribute the money isn't your responsibility. Management has to know that sometimes when people leave the company their pet projects end with them.

  • "Designing a fair way to end the program and distribute the money isn't your responsibility." - unless, you know, it is? It's quite believable that "put in charge of the program" includes this kind of decisions. – Mołot Aug 22 at 12:57
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    @Mołot - the asker might volunteer, or be requested to make recommendations but they should refrain and refuse to make decisions unapproved from above - because no matter what is decided, lots of people are going to be angry, and that anger needs to be fairly directed at those who originally signed off on the idea, and have a role in the organization where they can safely be targets of widespread employee anger. Changing this program needs to come down from a level where employees accepting the change is part of deciding to stay in the job. – Chris Stratton Aug 22 at 13:02
  • @ChrisStratton I'm not discussing what asker should do. I'm only saying that I see no reason to believe that specific sentence I commented on is true, and that possibility that asker was formally empowered to make such decisions should be at least considered as a possible situation. – Mołot Aug 22 at 13:04
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    Regardless if they were empowered or even requested to, they must refuse and push the ultimate decision making back up, anything else is going to put them at the center of the nastiest internal politics imaginable as either one half of the company or else the other tries to get them fired. Setting the strategy for employee moral is a top level decision, any statement to the contrary is fundamentally false even if the person making it believes or wishes it to be true. – Chris Stratton Aug 22 at 13:05
  • @Mołot Going ahead with this program opens up at least ethical concerns, at most legal vulnerabilities for the company. At this point the decision can not be made at a lowest level. – user3819867 Aug 22 at 14:11
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You shouldn't kick anyone out of the program without running it past your supervisor or HR first.

That said, if there are people cheating that blatantly there are probably more cheating by claiming plausible levels of activity while sitting on the couch all day. As broken as it's become, my recommendation would be to try and shut it down completely or to award the prize randomly among all participants.

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  1. Document the complaints
  2. Speak with your manager and HR about the cheating
  3. Propose that the competition gets shut down or that you get relieved of this duty
  4. Propose a plan for spending the money in a health-conscious way

Try to get HR to send the shut down notice.

If this burden falls on you then make sure to avoid expressing your feelings:

Thank you to everyone for your participation but we are sorry to announce that the Wellness program is being shut down effective immediately. We have seen some really excellent participation rates but unfortunately there have been numerous claims that participation has been recorded unfairly and upon further review we have decided to cease this program.

As we continue encouraging healthy lifestyles both in and out of the office we would like to announce that the prize money will be used to fund x, y, and z.

Thank you

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first. like others said. I suggest cancelling this competition. Give people the reasons why. Be polite and realize that you are messing with a prize pool that can change someones life if used well. You are going to get flack for doing this. no matter what. Right now it's just a matter of getting more people to understand than annoyed.

As you stated it's way to easy to cheat.Mention this but stress that you're not saying anyone is actually cheating. just that the option exists, and that it wouldn't be fair to the winner to have that hanging over them.

Second. there is no reason competition should be avoided altogether. I suggest doing something straight forward. Like organizing a run. It can be a one off, or yearly event. It's live ,so cheating is difficult, and almost everyone can run a 5k with some training. and that was the goal in the first place. get people exercising.

However. i would suggest asking for ideas from those working at your company. They know the place and people better than we do. and it can get their minds off of missing out, and on to problem solving.

third. most importantly. break up those prizes that is just too big a prize with too high a risk to keep the competition healthy. Spread them out and gear the prizes towards participation rather than winning.

Only you know the exact size of your company and the available prize pool. But just as an example. here's how the prizes for the 5k at my company are distributed. prizes won are cumulative.

  • finish withing the time limits get €50
  • run a personal record. get €75
  • place between 1st and 8th. get between €50 and €5

setting up an event in this manner gives people a reason to join, and to improve year over year. Since, even if you're dead last, if you're faster than last year. You walk home with 125 bucks. Not too shabby for a bit of exercise.

  • "Finish within time limits" singles out the obese people. "Run a personal record" everyone will say yes. "Place between 1st and 8th" singles out the predetermined 9th+ people. – Evorlor Aug 22 at 12:55
  • @Evorlor I can set a personal record as many times as I want, so I'd say it's the most broken of the three. I'd go for the time limits. If you want something, work hard for it! – David Aug 22 at 13:18
  • @Evorlor While it does single out obese people. the time limits are 35 and 38 minutes for men and women respectively. I think that's a wide enough margin to get everyone even remotely capable and willing to exercise motivated enough to do something. Besides. it's not only about reducing the amount of people excluded to the event. It reduces the cheating and left out feeling of not being able to go for a several thousand dollar prize. – Bob Meijer Aug 23 at 7:51
  • @David While you're right, we've yet to see it be heavily abused. Most people get caught up in the race for a high place. Or run along with a colleague and end up setting a way better time than planed. Now of course the prizes are based on my company and its people, and changes could be made. They are based on giving a bit of motivation. But for most the competition or setting an actual PR is where the fun is. What I've noticed is that a race where everyone just sees each other run normalized exercising. Colleagues go for runs together all the time here after work. – Bob Meijer Aug 23 at 8:01
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Yes, these wellness competitions are usually unbelievable. My company ultimately ditched the prize aspect and went with a yearly survey that you fill out and get $100 dollars HSA credit. At my company we had a competition with a pedometer. A really obese individual claimed to have walked nearly 2/3 of the USA when you map out the steps to miles in a period of a month. They offered cash prize so everyone joined in right away and started putting in numbers racking in the 1000s. I don't see anyone actually walking around. Everyone got upset and some claimed cheating and I think the company ditched it more so not to hear complaints anymore.

From what I understand the company get a huge tax discount by depositing into the HSA account or giving cash prizes for health reasons so it's more helpful for them than you. It's better to pay $3,000 to write off in taxes than it is to pay a full tax amount or in the case of tax brackets, you might pay lesser overall going under a range. With a cash prize though, other than anger, it helps the company more in terms of tax breaks. So I doubt your company will stop it entirely. But yes, it's ridiculous and unfortunately you can't do anything unless there's a clause to verify their claims. Best thing to do is to document the claim and take it to the HR folks.

  • Fun fact: You can trick a pedometer and get your step count up if you strap it to a bicycle wheel and spin the wheel around. – Catsunami Aug 22 at 19:32
  • @Catsunami Most likely they put it on their belt then while rocking back and forth on the chair, it racks up the numbers. I showed an example of it at a meeting with the company but they were playing dumb that people are actually being truthful about a 300+ pounds individual walking 2/3 the way of America in a month. While going to the meeting, he had difficulties walking from the elevator to the meeting room. – Dan Aug 22 at 19:34
  • @Catsunami I should also add that a lot of folks were honest in some way by doing an equivalent mileage from biking to walking. So they biked 3 miles, and converted it with a webpage they found online. It's a fairly honest attempt and they also documented it with the company and page. I wouldn't have any issue with folks doing alternatives with walking to a less impact activity. But even these folks pale in comparison with some of the high score people who obviously didn't do it but no way to disprove it. – Dan Aug 22 at 19:46
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You could add a simple "proof" section to whatever form you're using. Something like a screenshot of their runkeeper app, a before/after image of them on a scale to show weight loss, etc. I know its still a system that's easy to cheat, but it'll prevent some people from doing the easy entry at the end of their day of their afternoon marathon...

I'd also suggest splitting up the prizes to something less extreme. Instead of maybe 5k (for example) to the top 3 people, split the money 10 ways and give 500 to each. That's enough for a lot of gym memberships for a year, etc.

Giving people more chances to win makes the competition more fun, and less likely to cheat to get into that 'elite' set of 3 who'll almost always win.

  • Faking a running app is actually quite simple, if you access to any means of transportation that could pass as running (like a bike, e-scooter). – Quora Feans Aug 22 at 16:44
  • Except for the time to do the track. And if you’re using a scooter or bike you’re still going out and not sitting on your couch. So if someone does 20km in an hour, you could flag it and challenge them. It’s still easy to fool, but there’s actual effort needed to fool it; it’s not just say you did it and you’re golden. – KGlasier Aug 22 at 16:48
  • OK, it's more elaborate than self-reporting, but since they are offering money, people can get creative to fake it (just let your kid run a little with your app). – Quora Feans Aug 22 at 16:50
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    If you want to hire three people to constantly monitor employees and be very administration heavy, so be it. But the idea is to just make it a bit less tempting to cheat, and make it so people don’t feel they have to cheat to get a reward. 500 for the top 10 is a lot easier to achieve than 3k for top 1. It doesn’t matter what system you have, someone will cheat. You can not get around that. – KGlasier Aug 22 at 17:05
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    Unfortunately there are no "proof" that you ran a marathon. I completed many half marathons and 5ks, 10ks, and 8ks, and each had a different way they would put your score on. Big marathons like Boston Marathon have qualifications before competing in their races. So if someone competed in it, would have to pass that aspect as well. You might catch someone in a lie based on that information. – Dan Aug 22 at 19:51
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For reasons already covered by many other answers, this competition needs to be shut down*. It's obviously not achieving what it's meant to achieve, and it's causing bad feeling. Welcome to Goodhart's Law in action.

Beyond that, even if you could ensure that everybody was playing fair... it's still a terrible idea. Each person has their own health needs, and what's good for one person's health may be very bad for another. Making it a competition inevitably pushes people into doing things that are unhealthy for them.

However, accusing people of lying without cast-iron evidence rarely goes down well, even if the accusation is correct. Trying to single out individual liars is a recipe for disaster. It's quite possible that the more obvious cheats are responding to less-obvious cheating, and felt that the only way they could even the playing field was by cheating themselves, in which case targeting them is going to make things even worse.

tldr: it's bad that people are cheating, but the whole idea is such a mess that rather than trying to punish the guilty it's probably better to go down the "let us never speak of this again" route.

So I wanted to offer a script that avoids that:

Hi everybody, I'm writing to let you know that the office exercise competition has been cancelled. It's become clear that we cannot run this competition in a way that is fair to everybody involved while still promoting good health.

Instead, we would like your suggestions on how the money committed to this competition could be spent to promote a healthy workplace for all employees. Please send your suggestions to ...

*Check with legal first to ensure there isn't a legal obligation for you to go through with this mess, and then run things by your manager, but it really needs to be shut down.

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I'd suggest proposing to change the prize to a raffle-style drawing, where entries are earned by going to health related classes that you set up, i.e. invite a yoga instructor, or setup a cycling class, etc. For employees - that way you are actually helping employees get healthier, and can still offer a prize, however there will be other employees present so people have a rough idea of who participated and how much

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This answer may not fly at a huge company that is risk diverse but if my employees did this I would send out a simple email. And this is what SHOULD be done in a workplace since the company is trying to promote wellness and offering something that is being abused. I think the answers you got here are a bit of a joke because if people were lying and scamming the company and it wasn't fitness related... people would have their arms in there air. As it stands you get politically-right answers because people think this is sensitive. Maybe it is but it sends a terrible message on the expectations you have for your employees and how they will represent your business. To me the 425 pound guy would literally lie about anything if he makes up that crap. You want to have a company that thinks it's OK to lie? Shutting down the contest is exactly what the liars want. They are not only liars but they would rather see no one get it then not them.

I know that we have a wellness contest. It seems that many of you are doing a great job and have taken this serious. However, some have put in some results that seem highly suspect.

I am disappointed in any staff member that has lied on this. I have expectations that our staff would not try to defraud the company and other employees. Can each of you please review your activity logs.
If there is anything that is out of the normal realm for your lifestyle or anything that cannot be verified, please delete your activities and exit the competition.

Anyone who claims activities that seem to be fraudulent will be reviewed fully.

thanks - Management

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I’m offering an alternative answer for completeness, because I think some of the other answers are better.

But another way might be …

“There have been accusations that people are cheating in the wellness program. Now, we have no proof of cheating, but to avoid future arguments, we are going to start requiring proof of accomplishments. And we will be considering changes in the program to better achieve its goals and improve fairness.”

  • This would mean that the cheaters who caught on early are still rewarded with an unfair advantage in the contest. – spuck Aug 23 at 15:14
  • Yes. But it fixes the problem for the future without the mess of changing the rules on the past. And what did I say about other answers? – WGroleau Aug 23 at 15:17
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Silently disqualify the obvious cheaters. Do your due diligence with the eventual leaders. You may still end up awarding the best liar but that risk existed either way irrespective of how poorly accounted this contest is. Award is at the discretion of the company, who has indirectly elected you to be its agent. Use this discretion.

  • How do you "silently disqualify" people in a contest like this? From the OP it looks as if people are able to see one another's reported activity, which means anybody can compare their own performance to that of the winner. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 25 at 1:57
  • @GeoffreyBrent as in simply don't award any of the obvious cheaters. it doesn't matter what people can and can't see. if someone who can barely make it up the stairs can somehow run 26 consecutive 5-minute miles they should be able to prove it without much difficulty. this isn't rocket surgery. – jayce Aug 25 at 2:09
  • What do you expect the reaction would be? – Geoffrey Brent Aug 25 at 2:30
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The people who are cheating know what they are doing. It would be unfair to anyone who legitimately participated in the wellness program to award the price to a obvious cheat, but also unfair if you cancel the program and cash prize altogether.

I would recommend you send out a general email and wipe any contested records off the board. The person is then free to re-contest the record, but will need to provide proof. In this case, someone contests the Obese mans marathon. He counter contests. You ask him to run a marathon and record it. Most people trying to be cheeky and beat the system will simple stop. If they are attempt to be dishonest then you can simple confront them about how inappropriate their behavior is, after all it is a wellness program.

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    I'd really recommend against this. You'll spend your entire working day trying to verify people's claims. – Gregory Currie Aug 22 at 5:13
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    It also forces to people to perform a feat again, which might require a ton of time that someone does not have. And it's changing the rules of a competition halfway through. – Erik Aug 22 at 5:21
  • Also, it's arguable that even if everyone played by the rules, this contest wouldn't really achieve any meaningful impact on employee wellness, and/or that the impact it did have was completely biased towards certain subsets of the population. – dwizum Aug 22 at 12:49
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    When I've looked at questionable performance records the depth of cheating is HUGE. The only way to run a program like this -- which is a stupid idea to begin with -- is to have 100% of the claimed activities be verified. But again, stupid idea because some of what is "wellness" is really just specific types of athleticism which often favors a small minority of employees, and not the company as a whole. – Julie in Austin Aug 22 at 14:06
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Since many of the reported activities are clearly fiction, pay the "winners" using monopoly money. That provides an in-kind response to the tongue in cheek submissions.

That can then provide a basis for replacing the contest with one that is independently verifiable and based on health improvements (as others have noted).

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