How much is a human being worth?

Over recent months the government has declared that employees (including bosses) should be neither over-paid nor under-paid. That’s fine – but how do you judge what is too much or too little?

It turns out that at the top, the level of pay for CEOs currently bears no relationship to performance, as measured by return on capital invested. Yet pay at the top is typically set by a dedicated remuneration committee. The problem is that the members of the committee are part of the magic circle of top employees themselves – so of course they behave ethically and treat others just as they would like to be treated. The result is that top pay escalates without apparent limit.

For those companies that obey the law, at the bottom of the employee payscale there is the minimum or ‘living’ wage which will in practice define the pay of the lowest paid. (Actually there is a big space below that characterised by under-employment and zero hours contracts, but that is perhaps another story.) As far as employees go, there is a proposal for companies to publish the ratio of the pay of their highest paid individual to the average wage. Why the average? Because the average is higher than the lowest wage, which will usually be the minimum wage, and so yields a more comfortable ratio.

On the technical side, companies should simply be transparent about the ratio of the highest to the lowest paid. A number of organisations in the charitable sector already declare that. And companies should also publish the ratio of the rate of increase of the CEO to that of the rate of increase of the company’s return on capital – as well as their highest to lowest pay ratios.

But perhaps more importantly in relation to governance, not only should remuneration committees include employee members as has been suggested, but their remit should be extended to consider the pay of all employees. That would go some way to bring the full spectrum of employees face to face with the full spectrum of pay rates. Maybe that will increase the appetite for fairness.

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