Discussion paper

DP17782 A Theory of Fair CEO Pay

This paper studies optimal executive pay when the CEO is concerned about fairness: if his wage falls below a perceived fair share of output, the CEO suffers disutility that is increasing in the discrepancy. Fairness concerns do not lead to fair wages always being paid -- to induce effort, the firm threatens the CEO with unfair wages if output is sufficiently low. The optimal contract sometimes involves performance shares: the CEO is paid a constant share of output if it is sufficiently high, but the wage drops discontinuously to zero if output falls below a threshold. Even if the incentive constraint is slack, the optimal contract continues to involve pay-for-performance, to address the CEO's fairness concerns and ensure his participation. Thus, the firm can implement strictly positive levels of effort "for free." This rationalizes pay-for-performance even if the CEO is intrinsically motivated and does not need effort incentives.


Chaigneau, P, A Edmans and D Gottlieb (2023), ‘DP17782 A Theory of Fair CEO Pay‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 17782. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp17782