Study: What if you knew how much your boss makes?

A hand holds up a bundle of dollars while many other hands do the same in the background
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More states are requiring employers to disclose information about their workers’ salaries with the hope it will reduce gender and racial pay gaps. But increasing pay transparency can also have some surprising impacts on worker productivity, according to a new large-scale study that is the first to examine how employees respond when they find out how much both their peers and bosses make.

The study, co-authored by Assoc. Prof. Ricardo Perez-Truglia, asked over 2,000 employees at a large commercial bank in Southeast Asia to guess their peers’ and managers’ salaries, then monitored their work habits after they were given the salary information. The main findings: Employees became less productive when they discovered their peers were making more money than they thought, but they worked harder when they discovered their bosses were earning more than they estimated.

“It was not uncommon for employees to find out that some of their bosses got paid three, four, five times as much as they do, sometimes 20 times as much,” said Perez-Truglia, whose study is forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy. “What shocked us was that when you compared yourself to your peers, small pay differences demotivate you. But when you find out your bosses make an obscene amount more than you make, you don’t care. If anything, you become more productive.”

The productivity boost was strongest for manager positions that were just a few promotions away from an employee’s current job, but the effect faded when it came to high-level, unattainable positions. This suggests workers believe, “If I work hard and get promoted, I will get paid an obscene amount myself,” Perez-Truglia said.

He and co-author Zoë Cullen of Harvard Business School also found that employees were better at guessing peer pay than manager pay. Employees also wanted the company to release more salary information—as long as it wasn’t their own.

The researchers did not study pay disparities by race or gender, but said their evidence relates to the growing debate on pay transparency laws. “There is a widespread view that forcing firms to be more transparent would reduce pay inequality,” they wrote. “Our findings suggest that these policies may be effective, but in a narrow sense: While transparency may pressure firms to reduce horizontal inequality (between peers), employees are unlikely to exert the same pressure to reduce vertical inequality (between employees and managers), which constitutes the bulk of pay inequality.”

The experiment

The research was conducted at an unidentified Southeast Asian bank in 2017, when Cullen was working there as chief economist. The researchers asked employees to guess the average base salaries of their managers and peers. Then, they conducted an experiment: half of the subjects, selected at random, would get to see an estimate of how much their peers or managers actually get paid.

The researchers then measured the behavior of these employees for 90 days after they saw, or did not see, what others were making. They found that employees worked harder–spending more hours at work, sending more emails from their company account and making more sales—when they found out their managers earned more than they thought. But those who found out their peers made more than they had estimated slacked off.

For example, they estimated that a 10% increase in manager salary over what employees had guessed increased the average hours employees worked by 1.5%, while a 10% increase in peer salary over what employees had guessed reduced the hours they worked by 9.4%.

The end of the survey included questions related to employee morale, such as job and pay satisfaction, and attitudes toward pay inequality. “When we tell them their peers get paid more, they say inequality is an issue. But when we tell them their bosses get paid more, they say they don’t care,” Perez-Truglia said.

On average, employees underestimated their bosses’ salaries by about 14%, but when it came to their peers’ pay, about half guessed too high and half guessed too low.

Would companies benefit?

Finding out how much peers earn “would positively affect some people and negatively affect some people,” with the net result for the company being about zero. “They cancel each other out,” Perez-Truglia said. Disclosing manager pay, however, would have a small positive impact on productivity.

On balance, the researchers concluded that companies and their employees could benefit from greater pay transparency.

Their results are consistent with previous research that found employees become demotivated when they find out their peers make more than they do. A 2012 study of University of California employees by UC Berkeley economists David Card, Emmanuel Saez, and Enrico Moretti along with Alexandre Mas of Princeton University showed that employees who found out they were earning less than the median for their unit were less satisfied with their job and more likely to look for a new one, while above-median earners were unaffected.

This new study is the first to look at the impact on employees who discover their boss’ pay, Perez-Truglia said.

He and Cullen also found that employees were hungry for salary information, and many were willing to “pay” for it. In the experiment, some employees gave up a chance to win almost $200 to see their boss’ or peers’ salaries. Employees may feel they need pay information “to decide whether to work harder to get promoted, or to use it as a bargaining chip in future salary negotiations,” they wrote.

Separately, in response to two survey questions, 65% of the employees said they would like their company to disclose to all employees the same type of average pay data provided in the experiment. However, 75% opposed disclosing everyone’s exact salary. “One plausible interpretation,” the authors wrote, “is that while employees value the salary information a lot, they may value their privacy even more.”


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