Rethinking Measurement of Pay Disparity and its Relation to Firm Performance

67 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2016 Last revised: 16 Dec 2016

Ethan Rouen

Columbia Business School

Date Written: December 2016


I develop measures of firm-level pay disparity and examine the relation between these measures and firm accounting performance. Using comprehensive compensation data for a large sample of firms in the S&P 1,500, I do not find a statistically significant relation between the ratio of CEO-to-mean employee compensation and accounting performance. I next create empirical models that allow me to separate the components of CEO and employee compensation explained by economic factors from those that are not, and use them to estimate explained and unexplained pay disparity. After validating my estimate of unexplained pay disparity by documenting that it is negatively related to measures of employee satisfaction, I find robust evidence of a negative (positive) relation between unexplained (explained) pay disparity and future firm performance. Additional tests show that the negative relation between unexplained disparity and firm performance is more pronounced for firms with weak corporate governance and those where employee turnover is more prevalent and more likely. These results provide support for the predictions of several theories on the relation between pay disparity and firm performance, and offer a roadmap for investors to interpret the CEO-to-median-employee pay ratio that publicly traded firms must disclose beginning in 2018.

Keywords: pay disparity, pay ratio, CEO pay ratio, income inequality

Suggested Citation

Rouen, Ethan, Rethinking Measurement of Pay Disparity and its Relation to Firm Performance (December 2016). Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 16-81. Available at SSRN: or

Ethan Rouen (Contact Author)

Columbia Business School ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

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