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Pay Theories

30 October, 2015 - 12:58

Now that we have discussed pay systems, it is important to look at some theories on pay that can be helpful to know when choosing the type of pay system your organization will use.

The equity theory is concerned with the relational satisfaction employees get from pay and inputs they provide to the organization. It says that people will evaluate their own compensation by comparing their compensation to others’ compensation and their inputs to others’ inputs. In other words, people will look at their own compensation packages and at their own inputs (the work performed) and compare that with others. If they perceive this to be unfair, in that another person is paid more but they believe that person is doing less work, motivational issues can occur. For example, people may reduce their own inputs and not work as hard. Employees may also decide to leave the organization as a result of the perceived inequity. In HR, this is an important theory to understand, because even if someone is being paid fairly, they will always compare their own pay to that of others in the organization. The key here is perception, in that the fairness is based entirely on what the employee sees, not what may be the actual reality. Even though HR or management may feel employees are being paid fairly, this may not be the employee’s belief. In HR, we need to look at two factors related to pay equity: external pay equity and internal pay equity. External pay equity refers to what other people in similar organizations are being paid for a similar job. Internal pay equity focuses on employees within the same organization. Within the same organization, employees may look at higher level jobs, lower level jobs, and years with the organization to make their decision on pay equity. Consider Walmart, for example. In 2010, Michael Duke, CEO of Walmart, earned roughly $35 million in salary and other compensation,  1 while employees earned minimum wage or slightly higher in their respective states. While Walmart contends that its wages are competitive in local markets, the retail giant makes no apologies for the pay difference, citing the need for a specialized skill set to be able to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. There are hundreds of articles addressing the issue of pay equity between upper level managers and employees of an organization. To make a compensation strategy work, the perceived inputs (the work) and outputs (the pay) need to match fairly.

The expectancy theory is another key theory in relation to pay. The expectancy theory says that employees will put in as much work as they expect to receive. In other words, if the employee perceives they are going to be paid favorably, they will work to achieve the outcomes. If they believe the rewards do not equal the amount of effort, they may not work as hard.

The reinforcement theory, developed by Edward L. Thorndike,  2 says that if high performance is followed by some reward, that desired behavior will likely occur in the future. Likewise, if high performance isn’t followed by a reward, it is less likely the high performance will occur in the future. Consider an extreme example of the reinforcement theory in the world of finance. On Wall Street, bonuses for traders and bankers are a major part of their salary. The average bonus in 2010 was $128,530,  3 which does not take into account specific commissions on trades, which can greatly increase total compensation. One interesting consideration is the ethical implications of certain pay structures, particularly commission and bonus plans. For example, after the US government bailed out American International Group (AIG) with $170 billion in 2009, it was reported AIG would still provide some $165 million in bonuses to the same business unit that brought the company to near collapse, because of contractual issues. Traditionally, a bonus structure is designed to reward performance, rather than be a guaranteed part of the compensation plan, as was the case with AIG. Bonus and commission plans should be utilized to drive desired behavior and act as a reward for the desired behavior, as the reinforcement theory states.

All these theories provide us information to make better decisions when developing our own pay systems. Other considerations are discussed next.