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Do Co-Workers’ Wages Matter? Theory and Evidence on Wage Secrecy, Wage Compression and Effort

  • Charness, Gary

    ()

    (University of California, Santa Barbara)

  • Kuhn, Peter J.

    ()

    (University of California, Santa Barbara)

We study worker and firm behavior in an environment where worker effort could depend on co-workers’ wages. Theoretically, we show that an increase in workers’ ‘concerns’ with coworkers’ wages should lead profit-maximizing firms to compress wages under quite general conditions. However, firms should be harmed by such concerns, and such concerns can justify paying equal wages to workers of unequal productivity only when those concerns are asymmetric (in the sense that only underpayment matters). Our laboratory experiments indicate that workers’ effort choices are highly sensitive to their own wages, but largely unresponsive to co-workers’ wages. Despite this, in apparent anticipation of a negative worker reaction, firms in our experiment were more likely to compress wages when wages became public information. Profits were not significantly reduced by a requirement to make wages public. Overall, our results seem to weaken the case that either wage secrecy or wage compression is a profit-maximizing policy in practice.

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Paper provided by Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 1417.

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Length: 47 pages
Date of creation: Nov 2004
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp1417
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  1. Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., . "A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation," Chapters in Economics, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  2. Axel Ockenfels & Gary E. Bolton, 2000. "ERC: A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity, and Competition," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 166-193, March.
  3. Kahneman, Daniel & Knetsch, Jack L & Thaler, Richard H, 1986. "Fairness and the Assumptions of Economics," The Journal of Business, University of Chicago Press, vol. 59(4), pages S285-300, October.
  4. Danziger, Leif & Katz, Eliakim, 1997. "Wage Secrecy as a Social Convention," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 35(1), pages 59-69, January.
  5. Ernst Fehr & Armin Falk, 2003. "Wage Rigidity in a Competitive Incomplete Contract Market," Labor and Demography 0305001, EconWPA.
  6. Lazear, Edward P, 1989. "Pay Equality and Industrial Politics," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 97(3), pages 561-80, June.
  7. Charness, Gary B & Rabin, Matthew, 2001. "Understanding Social Preferences With Simple Tests," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt0dc3k4m5, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  8. Akerlof, George A & Yellen, Janet L, 1990. "The Fair Wage-Effort Hypothesis and Unemployment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 105(2), pages 255-83, May.
  9. Fehr, Ernst, et al, 1998. "When Social Norms Overpower Competition: Gift Exchange in Experimental Labor Markets," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 16(2), pages 324-51, April.
  10. Georg Kirchsteiger & Ernst Fehr & Arno Riedl, 1993. "Does Fairness Prevent Market Clearing? An Experimental Investigation," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/5927, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
  11. Babcock, Linda & Wang, Xianghong & Lowenstein, George, 1996. "Choosing the Wrong Pond: Social Comparisons in Negotiations That Reflect a Self-Serving Bias," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 111(1), pages 1-19, February.
  12. Frank, Robert H, 1984. "Are Workers Paid Their Marginal Products?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(4), pages 549-71, September.
  13. John Kagel & Katherine Wolfe, 2001. "Tests of Fairness Models Based on Equity Considerations in a Three-Person Ultimatum Game," Experimental Economics, Springer, vol. 4(3), pages 203-219, December.
  14. Harris, Milton & Holstrom, Bengt, 1982. "A Theory of Wage Dynamics," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 49(3), pages 315-33, July.
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