Because I'm worth it? Understanding inequality in a performance-based pay system

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


How do workers understand pay inequality? Every organizational field has a taken-for-granted compensation system that shapes understandings of rewards. Using data from 76 Wall Street professionals, I analyze how individuals interpret, understand, and justify inequality in a performance-based reward system where pay is supposed to be based on merit. A majority of securities workers believed that the performance-based pay system produced equitable rewards. But a substantial minority challenged the procedural and/or distributive justice of this pay system, producing counterinstitutional accounts. These accounts took three general forms: accounts of arbitrariness, accounts of misinformation, and accounts of discrimination. All of these counterinstitutional accounts pointed to nonmerit influences on bonuses. I argue that these challenges might undermine the legitimacy of the pay system, but most men and women who challenged the system exited their firms or the industry, so that their challenges did little to destabilize Wall Street's pay practices. Wall Street appears to maintain its legitimacy in part through the self-selection of dissenters out of the system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)116-139
Number of pages24
JournalSociological Inquiry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Because I'm worth it? Understanding inequality in a performance-based pay system'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this