Pay Harmony? Social Comparison and Performance Compensation in Multi-Business Firms

35 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2014 Last revised: 13 Jan 2017

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: December 22, 2016


Our study presents evidence that social comparison influences both the level of pay and the degree of performance sensitivity within firms. We report pay patterns among division managers of large, multi-business firms over a fourteen-year period. These patterns are consistent with employees comparing pay against both their peers (horizontal comparison) and the CEO (vertical comparison) within their firm. Horizontal comparison also appears to reduce pay-performance sensitivity, in accord with prior theory proposing that performance pay can lead to perceived pay inequity among employees. Taken together, our evidence suggests that agency costs and social comparison jointly influence pay within firms. The evidence also supports the notion that managers of multi-business firms are constrained in the degree to which they can incentivize employees, given the firm-imposed reference group.

Keywords: Executive Compensation, Pay-for-Performance, Internal Labor Markets, Peer Comparison, Firm Geography

JEL Classification: J33, J44, M12, M52

Suggested Citation

Gartenberg, Claudine Madras and Wulf, Julie M., Pay Harmony? Social Comparison and Performance Compensation in Multi-Business Firms (December 22, 2016). Harvard Business School Strategy Unit Working Paper No. 13-041, Available at SSRN: or

Claudine Madras Gartenberg

Wharton ( email )

The Wharton School
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6370
United States
2158987755 (Phone)

Julie M. Wulf (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Harvard Business School
Boston, MA
United States

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