Steve Bain

Efficiency Wage Theory (is it nonsense?)

Modern ideas behind efficiency wage theory emerged in the 1980s as a response to criticisms of neoclassical labor market models of Alfred Marshall and others. Those early models assume that individuals are motivated by financial incentives alone i.e., that the equilibrium wage in a competitive labor market is determined solely by supply and demand forces.

These forces are important, but human behavior is complex, incorporating psychological, social, and organizational factors into the wage-setting process. Efficiency wage theory is rooted in the idea that there is asymmetric information in the labor market, because firms have difficulty in monitoring individual workers' productivity levels. This creates the opportunity for 'shirking' i.e. slacking off. In essence there is a principal-agent problem in labor markets.

The efficiency wage theory argues that there is a direct correlation between wages and employee performance i.e., that by paying higher wages, firms can reduce market failure and actually profit more than they would at lower wages, because the incentive for workers to shirk is reduced. It is true that higher wages can attract a more skilled and dedicated workforce that can increase productivity and profits, but whether or not this happens in practice is another matter. I will explain this in detail in the sections below.

The relationship between wages and productivity

The relationship between wages and productivity is based on three main factors:

  • Increased Motivation - Higher wages can act as an incentive for workers to reduce shirking and work harder. When workers are compensated well for their efforts, they are more likely to invest their time and energy into their work. This increased effort can translate into higher productivity levels and improved overall performance.
  • Higher Quality Workers - Higher wages can attract more skilled and experienced individuals. When companies offer competitive salaries, they are more likely to attract top talent in the industry. These highly skilled employees bring their expertise and knowledge to the table, which can significantly enhance productivity levels within the organization.
  • Reduced Staff Turnover - Higher wages can contribute to a positive work environment and boost employee morale. When workers feel valued and fairly compensated, they are less likely to seek alternative work. This leads to significantly reduced staff training costs and improved employee retention.

Case studies and empirical evidence

Efficiency wage theory is supported by numerous case studies and empirical evidence, which demonstrate the positive impact of higher wages on productivity and profitability.

One notable case study is the Ford Motor Company. In the early 20th century, Henry Ford made the bold decision to pay his workers double the prevailing wage at the time. This decision not only reduced turnover rates but also attracted a highly skilled and dedicated workforce. As a result, Ford was able to increase productivity and reduce costs, ultimately leading to higher profits.

Another example is the study conducted by The National Bureau of Economic Research. The study analyzed the impact of higher wages on employee performance in the retail industry. The findings revealed that the companies paying higher wages had lower turnover rates and higher levels of employee productivity. This suggests that higher wages can lead to improved performance and profitability.

Finally, a study conducted by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, explored the impact of higher wages on employee turnover in the fast-food industry. The study found that companies paying higher wages experienced a significant decrease in turnover rates. This reduction in turnover resulted in cost savings and improved productive efficiency.

Challenges & Criticisms of efficiency wage theory

While the theory has garnered support from various studies, it is not without its challenges and criticisms.

One challenge is the potential cost implications for businesses. Paying higher wages increases labor costs, which may impact a company's profitability, especially for small businesses with limited resources.

Another criticism is the assumption that higher wages always lead to improved productivity. While higher wages can be a powerful motivator, individual differences and external factors such as job design, training, and management practices can also influence productivity levels.

Lastly, what may be true for the firm is less likely true of the industry, meaning that one firm’s gain is likely offset by other firms’ losses. For example, if all firms pay higher wages, then no single firm is a high wage firm, and only even higher wages will then work. Ultimately this can only result in higher costs throughout the industry, leading to higher prices for consumers, fewer sales, and more unemployment.

A counter-argument to this last point is that, since all firms are paying higher wages, total demand for workers is reduced, meaning that all employed workers in the industry face a threat of unemployment if their productivity level falters. This might be a problem in the short term as an industry mover towards efficiency wages but, ultimately, it seems likely that supply and demand for workers will adjust to the new equilibrium. Certainly, for many industries, individual worker productivity is difficult to monitor, so the threat of unemployment due to poor productivity is often mooted.

Which industries are best suited to efficiency wages?

The applicability of the efficiency wage theory can vary across industries and sectors. While the theory suggests that paying higher wages can lead to increased profits, its effectiveness is influenced by many factors. The best suited industries/occupations are:

Research and Development (R&D): Companies engaged in research and development activities often require employees with specialized knowledge and creativity. The efficiency wage theory can be relevant in R&D intensive industries, where the difference between a good employee and an excellent employee makes a vast difference in the development of new products or technologies.

Information Technology & Software Development: In the rapidly evolving IT and software development sectors, skilled programmers and developers are essential. High-tech companies often face intense competition for talent, and the efficiency wage theory can be relevant in retaining top software engineers and developers.

Financial Services: Banking, investment, and asset management, relies on the expertise and reliability of its employees. Offering higher wages can help attract and retain skilled financial professionals, enhance customer trust, and contribute to the overall stability and success of financial institutions.

Sports & Athletics: The ultra-competitive nature of sports and athletics means that average performance is virtually worthless, and only the very best performance is rewarded. While it may be a simple matter to kick a ball around a field, it is quite tricky to satisfy football fans with mediocre play. Offering ultra-high wages is the only way to attract the highest quality athletes who can perform at the highest levels and thereby generate loyal fans and profits.

Which industries are worst suited to efficiency wages?

While the efficiency wage theory may offer benefits in certain industries, there are others where its application might be less suitable or face greater challenges. The effectiveness of the efficiency wage theory depends on various factors, including the nature of the industry, competitive dynamics, and the characteristics of the workforce. Here are some industries where the efficiency wage theory might be considered less applicable:

Seasonal or Cyclical Industries: Industries that experience significant seasonal fluctuations or cyclical demand may find it challenging to implement efficiency wages. In these cases, employers may prefer flexibility in adjusting labor costs based on fluctuating demand rather than committing to higher fixed wages throughout the year.

Labor-Intensive Industries: Industries that compete primarily on cost may be less inclined to adopt the efficiency wage theory. In these industries, where the emphasis is on mass production and cost efficiency, companies may be more focused on keeping wage costs low rather than on offering higher wages to motivate workers.

Highly Competitive Price-Sensitive Markets: Industries operating in highly competitive and price-sensitive markets, such as certain segments of the retail or consumer goods industries, may face challenges in implementing efficiency wages. In fiercely competitive markets, companies may prioritize cost control and price competitiveness over paying higher wages.


It's important to recognize that the suitability of the efficiency wage theory can vary even within industries. Factors such as the specific business model, competitive strategy, and organizational culture play crucial roles in determining whether higher wages can effectively contribute to improved productivity and reduced turnover in a given context.

Efficiency wages, where they are most applicable, may force all employers in an industry to adopt them or face losing the battle for competitiveness. Unfortunately, this must ultimately lead to significantly higher costs of production that must be passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. For industries where quality is relatively more important than price, this will be of little concern, and efficiency wages will tend to deliver better results.

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