Workplace Dilemma: Do You Really Want To Know What Everyone Else Is Being Paid?

Miles Teller, who really showed THEM...

Non-La La Land star Miles Teller, who really showed THEM…

The male star of the buzzy movie musical “La La Land,” which opens next week, is Ryan Gosling. The role was originally offered to Miles Teller, who was a rising hot property and star on the threshold for acing the role of the abused drummer in “Whiplash,” like “La La Land” directed by Damien Chazelle.

But according to the people familiar wit negotiations, Teller was insulted by money he was offered,  a paltry $1 million, primarily because his putative co-star, Emma Stone,was being offered almost $3 million. After some back and forth, Chazelle replaced Teller with Gosling. Thus did Teller lose out on an a rare opportunity to make himself a major star in a film that is widely believed to be an Oscar magnet, and, of course, he won’t have that million dollars, either.

This a particularly vivid example of the ethics dilemma created by comparative salaries. I have not seen or heard of a satisfactory solution to it, from the management side or the labor side. Management would prefer that employees not know what other employees are making, and with good reason. The information can cause envy, bitterness, anger and lawsuits. Every employee has a tendency to believe they are more valuable, and indispensable, than they really are. Of course, some employers want to keep salaries secret because there are disparities that they cannot defend, or that may be illegal. While transparency is desirable to prevent unfair salary differences, however, it can make legitimate disparities untenable.

From the employee’s perspective, the same dilemma applies. I never wanted to know what my colleagues were making, as long as I felt my own compensation was fair. I knew that if I found out an employee that I regarded as a boob and a slacker was getting more than I was, it would demoralize me. Then there was the time I accidentally found out that a female employee with more seniority and who performed the same job I did but did it better was getting substantially less than I was.

This is one of the classic fairness problems. An employer should be able to pay different individuals different amounts for the same tasks when and if one is better than the other, faster, more efficient, a better problem-solver, with more initiative; if one is never sick, or more of a team player, more professional, more helpful and cooperative, popular with customers, or has more seniority, commitment to the company, and other factors. How is bias kept out of these calculations, though? How can any employee be sure that the reason a colleague is allegedly being paid more on the basis of performance evaluations and seniority isn’t really getting more because of his gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or political views, or because he’s providing sexual favors to the boss, or because she reminds the boss of his late sister, killed in a freak toboggan accident?

Isn’t the only guaranteed fair approach to salaries  to have all similar jobs paid a uniform amount, so there are no disparities to discover? No. If someone provides more value, he or she deserves more compensation than another employee. Not paying that employee more isn’t fair, it is unfair….but what if the other employees finds out, and refuse to see why the disparity exists?

This appears to be what happened to Miles Teller. In no field are unique traits and assets more relevant to compensation than show business. At high levels, talent isn’t fungible. Though Teller won’t admit it, Emma Stone is a bigger star than he is, a bigger box office draw, and a more reliable asset to the film. Paying her more money isn’t bias (unless she was sleeping with a studio executive or blackmailing the director), whether Teller thinks he’s as good or better than she is or not. The ethics question he should have asked himself was, “Is a million bucks plus the opportunity to be the star of this cool movie with a director I’ve collaborated well with once before a fair exchange for the work I’ll be doing?”

The answer, Miles, is “Yes.” Actually it’s “Yes, you idiot.”

Esquire tells us that Teller’s response to the news that he was out of the picture was to send the director a text that read “What the fuck, bro?” This is in an article that explains that Teller “is kind of a dick.”

You see, that alone is a fair reason to pay someone less.

I hope Miles learns this.



Pointer and Facts: New York Times

Graphic: Esquire

20 thoughts on “Workplace Dilemma: Do You Really Want To Know What Everyone Else Is Being Paid?

  1. Thinking about this in my state administrators are typically paid about twice the amount a classroom teacher earns. Do they do twice the work? Hardly, although an argument could be made that they have advanced degrees and sometimes put in more hours. Are they smarter in general? Very doubtful from my observations as a school psychologist. I guess that life just isn’t fair.

    • As a teacher, I would never want an administrator’s job. At my school, they’re typically the first here and the last to leave, and they are kept very busy. I wouldn’t necessarily say they do twice the work, and I think some administrator salaries are a little outrageous. But my district also pays teachers very well compared to our surrounding districts.

      • Agree. That’s the situation here as well. Administrators have a burden that teachers don’t have. There are a million decisions a day to be made while hundreds of people watch and criticize and government agencies write new rules constantly. School administrators as well as teachers do their jobs with a lot of people watching and in my district they are at-will employees.

        • Apparently you didn’t work in my former district. The first people that would show up for work were the school secretaries who did have a million things to do like filling out enrollment cards for parents who were basically illiterate and watching kids who were playground troublemakers. We did have some good administrators who weren’t clueless or bullies. They usually got promoted to be assistant superintendents or vp’s at high schools.

  2. I agree that publishing employee compensation is a disaster waiting to happen.

    Assuming you are correct that it is going to be an Oscar contender, his agent should have negotiated for residuals and other compensation tied to the movie’s performance at the box office. I will be dollars to donuts he would have made more money.

    Sounds to me like our deer friend Miles swung for the fences and struck out in the bottom of the 9th, with bases loaded, and his team down by three runs. In Texas, there is an expression: “Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered”. The Good Mr. Teller sounds like the latter. His little tantrum cost him a ton of money.


  3. Slightly off topic, Jack, but did you see Bleed for This, the latest movie starring Miles Teller as Rhode Island native boxer Vinny Paz?

  4. I don’t think using an independent contractor as an example works when comparing to salaried employees.

    An employee is a part of your organization, part of the team, and that bring on certain obligations of fairness on all parties for the sake of the whole. Contractors are acting as a separate business who’s services you’ve engaged, each party, contractor and contractee are obligated only to whatever terms are spelled out.

    • The issue is still the same: certainly the argument for equal pay by gender is the same (see: Jennifer Lawrence.) Professional sports teams don’t have uniform salaries. More valuable staff get pay more; higher performance counts. Give me what you think is an example of what you are talking about above the most menial tasks. Lawyers? Accountants? Fundraisers? Business execs?

      • Jennifer Lawrence is a contractor not an employee.

        Performance counts when considering raises and promotion. Wouldn’t two people who were hired for the same job, say two people for the accounting department of megacorp, get the same starting salary?

        • It doesn’t matter: she makes the same point employees do. I just don’t recall the chant, “Equal Pay for equal work, except in the case of independent contractors.” That’s because the principle either applies to both or it applies to neither.

  5. In law firm world, most of the Am Law 100 pay lock-step for associates usually from year 1 to about year 5. That is because there is little difference in duties and responsibilities (quite frankly, they are all overpaid anyway because even the best law grads know little about the actual practice of law). Those employees who are brilliant and hard working will get a higher bonus at the end of the year. It’s a good system. At my old firm, after year 5, all associates shared (anonymously) their salaries and bonuses and that information was compiled in a chart that was submitted to everybody. The partners frowned on this, but we found it incredibly useful in our own bargaining negotiations.

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