When It Comes to Pay, Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

'Agreeable' men finish a distant second in terms of earnings

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Aug 18, 2011

New research suggests that "agreeable" workers in North America are paid considerably less than their less-agreeable colleagues and that the gap is especially wide among men.

The study paper, Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income, was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in August 2011.

"Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings," conclude the study's authors, Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University, Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario. They found that:

[M]en who are one standard deviation [roughly 20 percentage points] below the mean on agreeableness earn an average of 18.31 percent ($9,772) more than men one standard deviation above the mean on agreeableness. Meanwhile, the “disagreeableness premium” for women was only 5.47 percent ($1,828). Thus, the income premium for disagreeableness is more than three times stronger for men than for women.

The professors concede their findings could be a bit puzzling. "Given the increasing reliance of organizations on teams," they write, "it would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage over those low in agreeableness." Why, then, have scholars not "offered more than a minimal explanation" for its absence? To a significant extent, the study suggested, because they have not fully appreciated the powerful effect of masculine stereotypes on men's earnings.

"Disagreeable men reap a double benefit," the professors explained. "Their disagreeableness helps them better translate their human capital into earnings advantage, and the same behavior conforms to expectations of 'masculine' behavior.” By the same token, "agreeable men are disproportionately disadvantaged" because their agreeableness "conflicts with social norms of masculinity."

Less Advantage for 'Mean' Women

Not that this anomaly provides an opportunity for women to close the earnings gap between the sexes, according to the researchers. "Seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women," the professors write. "Thus, exhortations for women not to be nice might be overblown. Nice girls might not get rich, but 'mean' girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men."

The paper's findings emerge from analysis of data collected over a span of almost 20 years in four different surveys—one of young workers that was carried out by the University of Chicago from 1997 to 2008; one of workers aged 25 to 74 conducted in the 1990s by Harvard Medical School; a University of Wisconsin survey of men and women who graduated from high schools in the state in 1957 and were followed into the 1990s; and a survey of 460 business students carried out in 2010 at a university in the southeastern United States.

In the three studies of workers, data analysis revealed much the same state of affairs:

Women earn substantially less than men.

Workers who described themselves as agreeable (using terms such as helpful, friendly, warm, caring and soft-hearted) earned significantly less than those who tended not to describe themselves in such terms.

Agreeableness proved to have a far more powerful negative effect on men's earnings than on women's.

A Range of Responses

When the Wall Street Journal reported on the study ("Hey, You! Mean People Earn More, Study Finds," Aug. 15, 2011), the article generated a high number of passionate comments. Some were critical of the study findings, for example:

"Mean" is pretty subjective, especially when self-reported. … All I actually infer is that aggressive people are more likely to progress up the corporate ladder. Duh.

Others were more agreeable, for example:

[The study is] absolutely true. I've been in the business world for 35 years and the top tier is full of sharp elbows, mean spirits and profane egos. … The sad fact is American business suffers because the 90 percent of business people who are none of the above possess better business acumen.

SHRM members can share their responses on this discussion thread in SHRM Connect.

HR Role-Playing

"The results from the surveys in the 1990s reflect the influence of stereotypes that have become familiar over time," commented Cornell University’s Livingston. "What was much more surprising—and somewhat disheartening as well—was to see how powerful those stereotypes continue to be among young people today."

In the 2010 research project cited in the study, students in a large business management class, called on to act as human resource managers for a fictional company, were each presented with single-paragraph descriptions of eight entry-level candidates for a consultant position. Participants were assigned descriptions of eight female or eight male candidates randomly (to disguise the gender component of the study) and were asked which ones should be placed on a fast track to management and higher pay.

All the candidates were described in some way as conscientious, smart and insightful, and all the paragraphs ended with a few words related to trust, straightforwardness, modesty and compliance—or their opposites. For example: "Observation: He (She) seems to be candid and trusting"; "Observation: His (Her) natural competitiveness was apparent"; and "He (She) exhibited his (her) self-interest during the interview."

In assessing the fast-track potential of candidates, the business students were somewhat more likely to favor men over women. Markedly stronger was their aversion to agreeableness, particularly among men. In the case of women candidates, in fact, it mattered little, if at all, whether they were agreeable or not. But while male candidates low in agreeableness were considerably more likely than women to get the students' nod for the fast track and higher compensation, the opposite was the case for men who were described as highly agreeable.


Since men are most affected by the business world's continuing prejudice against agreeableness, how should they respond to the study? "Certainly, nice guys should forswear any wholesale personality makeover, even if such a thing is possible," commented Livingston. "What would obviously make sense is to maintain their good nature without compromising their self-interest. For example, suppose they contribute significantly to the success of a project. Agreeable people sometimes have a tendency to hide their light under a bushel. But there are ways to make sure that one's contribution is recognized without being disagreeable about it."

She added, "In the end, agreeable folks may make less money than they deserve, but even disagreeable people know that money isn't everything."

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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