In a recent column for Slate, Professor Ray Fisman argues that the process of how executive compensation is determined — namely the practice of peer-pay comparison — has allowed the pay of top-level employees to snowball. Fisman suggests that the priority for pay must be realigned with performance. He writes:

… the lesson isn’t that we should dump the baby of peer comparison out with the bathwater. If CEOs and others should earn “what the market will bear,” how better to figure this out than to look at how the market is treating other CEOs? But this CEO labor market will work only if all companies also keep an eye on the more basic market principle that higher CEO pay must first and foremost be tied to the success of the companies they lead.

Accounting professor Sudhakar Balachandran argues that another potential effect of the peer-pay model is decreased sensitivity of pay-to-poor performance (see blog post “Paying for a Pulse”).

“Peer-pay comparison is typically motivated by the goal of trying attract and retain the best talent, which is often at odds with the other major goal in compensation, that of motivating performance,” says Balanchandran. “Businesses are trying to achieve multiple objectives that are conflicting with each other, and that tension has to be managed and resolved by the board.”

Balanchandran suggests that the balance for determining how to structure executive pay — where a firm must find and retain talent on one hand and motivate leaders on the other — creates a tension that is never likely to disappear. Recognizing and accepting that push-and-pull may be the first step for creating a new model for pay, he says.

“Some of the populism found in the business press these days is a little dangerous because it tries to pretend that tension doesn’t exist. And that can create a bigger problem because you are ignoring real economic tensions.”

Photo credit: Thomas Claveirole