Personnel economics

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Personnel economics has been defined as "the application of economic and mathematical approaches and econometric and statistical methods to traditional questions in human resources management". [1] It is an area of applied micro labor economics, but there are a few key distinctions. One distinction, not always clearcut, is that studies in personnel economics deal with the personnel management within firms, and thus internal labor markets, while those in labor economics deal with labor markets as such, whether external or internal. [2] In addition, personnel economics deals with issues related to both managerial-supervisory and non-supervisory workers. [3]


The subject has been described as significant and different from sociological and psychological approaches to the study of organizational behavior and human resource management in various ways. It analyzes labor use, which accounts for the largest part of production costs for most firms, by formulation of relatively simple but generalizable and testable relationships. It also situates analysis in the context of market equilibrium, rational maximizing behavior, and economic efficiency, which may be used for prescriptive purposes as to improving performance of the firm. [4] For example, an alternate compensation package that provided a risk-free benefit might elicit more work effort, consistent with psychologically-oriented prospect theory. [5] But a personnel-economics analysis in its efficiency aspect would evaluate the package as to cost–benefit analysis, rather than work-effort benefits alone. [6]

Personnel economics has its own Journal of Economic Literature classification code, JEL: M5 but overlaps with such labor economics subcategories as JEL: J2, J3, J4, and J5. [7] Subjects treated (with footnoted examples below) include:

History of Personnel Economics

The field can be dated back to 1776, where Adam Smith, a British Economist believed that within the labor market equilibrium, there is a possibility that a trade-off between a worker's wages and non-monetary working conditions exists. [14] However, Personnel Economics did not come into prominence until 1987, where the Journal of Labor Economics published 10 articles around the field. [14] During the 1990s, Personnel Economics slowly became more empirical based, up until this point the field was more heavily theoretical. [15] Personnel Economics is considered to be a branch of Labor Economics, in 1998, Edward Lazear described it as 'the use of economics to understand the internal workings of the firm'. [15] Since new data has become more widely available, the field has evolved to have a more practical use. Econometric techniques have played a huge role in the development of the field, with data being used to analyze personnel records and other human resource data, this is known as Insider Econometrics. [16]

Theory, Testing, and Possible Uses

Personnel economics began to emerge as a distinct field from a flurry of research in the 1970s that sought to answer the questions of how prices of goods and services traded within a firm are determined. An early difficulty that the subject addressed is possible differences between the interests of an employer considered as wanting cost-free output and employees as wanting cost-free income. [17] The relationship is represented at a general level in the principal-agent problem whose solution is the firm modeled as a set of contracts for efficiently allocating risk and monitoring the performance of the production team and its members. [18] Many questions about wage determination and the relationship between wages and productivity in a firm or government enterprise were raised as a result. The subject was developed in addressing those questions, including examination of pay structure and promotions within hierarchical organizations. [19] [20]

Major theories of the subject developed in the late 1970s and 1980s from the research of Bengt Holmström, [20] Edward Lazear, [21] and Sherwin Rosen [22] to name but a few. Research threads included analysis of:

From the later 1980s, researchers began to forge closer links with experimental economics, including generation of data to test the theories in the field. [26] Other empirical studies conducted then utilized data from sports (e.g. golf tournaments and horse racing). [27] and company records on their suppliers' performances (e.g. raising broiler chickens). [28]

From the 1990s, there was a further surge of empirical tests of the theory from wider availability of personnel records of large companies to researchers and interest in the relation between compensation and productivity [29] and the implications of imperfect labor markets and rent-seeking behavior for the subject. [30]

A retrospective collection of the personnel economics-literature is in Lazear et al., ed. (2004), Personnel Economics, Elgar, with 43 articles dating from 1962 to 2000 (link to contents link here).

Two millennial articles by a contributor to the subject argued in the course of review and assessment to the conclusions that:

[B]ecause of the relevance and newly found rigor of personnel analysis, personnel economics should and will become a more important part of the educational curriculum. The field is growing and has a large potential audience, of both students and practitioners. [31]

Gift Exchange Theory

The Gift Exchange Theory, also referred to as the fair-wage theory, applies when employees are provided with better wages than they could receive at another firm, in exchange for a higher work standard. [32]

In 1993 a laboratory experiment (Fehr et al., 1993) [33] was conducted to perceive the effects that the Gift Exchange Theory had on employee effectiveness. Contrary to predictions, it was found that most employers were offering higher (sometimes by more than 100%) than market clearing wages. On average, the higher wage was requited by a higher output, often making it very profitable for employers to offer high wage contracts. Paying for an employees performance can lead to increased productivity, and higher competition surrounding highly skilled workers who will want to work for employers who pay for performance.

Tournament Theory

Tournament Theory was proposed by Edward Lazear and Sherwin Rosen. [25] The theory addresses how pay raises are associated with promotions. The theory’s main point is that promotions are a relative gain. Regarding compensation, the level of compensation must be strong enough to motivate all employees below the level of compensation who aim to be promoted. If the pay spread between promotions is larger, the incentive of employees to put in effort will also be larger. The desired outcome from this would be to see employees performing at a quality and producing a quantity of output that the organization deems desirable. Compensation is also not necessarily determined by the conception of productivity. Employees are promoted based on their relative position within the organization and not by their productivity. However, productivity does hold some weight when considering promotion. [34]

Advantages vs Disadvantages

  • Incentive Performance: Workplaces that promote competition among employees may benefit from incentivized performance. Studies have shown that competition within the workplace helps boost performance because employees value the idea of being better than the rest. [35]
  • Matching Workers and Jobs: Under Tournament Theory, workers are matched to their appropriate job. Firms with a tournament structure in the workplace are more likely to hire more competitive and highly-skilled workers, and firms with a workplace based structured around equity are more likely to hire less competitive and lower-skilled workers. [35]
  • Inequality within the Workplace: Workplaces that are based around a tournament structure are prone to creating an unequal working environment. If workers are paid based on their performance, it has the potential to leave some employees worse off than others. This type environment could also be more demotivating for under-performing workers and more motivating for over-achieving workers which results in a bigger payoff gap between the two types of workers over time. [35]
  • Unethical Behavior: A problem with competition in a workplace is that it is prone to promoting unethical behavior within employees. As they are competing against each other, they may succumb to inappropriate actions that can hurt another employee's standing within the company. [35]

Principal-Agent Problem

The Principal-Agent Problem is based on the relationship between an employer (principal) and an employee (agent). In this case, the employer relies on their employees to maximize the firm’s utility. In practice, incentives are sometimes misaligned between the principal and the agent. This occurs due to differing goals between the two, this can lead to adverse selection for the principal when hiring an agent, they cannot fully evaluate an agent's skills and moral hazard for the agent when presented with more information than the principal. [36]

Approaches to Resolving Conflict

  1. Fixed payment with monitoring [37]
    • Fixed salaries are provided to agents while their performance is under observation.
    • Disadvantages: Shirking, monitoring costs and adverse selection.
  2. Incentive pay without monitoring
    • Payment is correlated with output and performance is not monitored.
    • Disadvantages: Inequitable pay and compensation

Shirking: No incentive to act in the best interest of the principal/firm because the agent is guaranteed pay.

Monitoring Costs: Additional resources and costs to monitor and measure agent performance.

Adverse Selection: Agents will look elsewhere for a job where performance is not as heavily monitored.

Inequitable Pay: Prone to delays and interruptions, and unreasonable to punish agents for these issues.

Compensation: Principals may have to provide agents a risk premium as agents bear a risk with payment.

Team Production

Over time, more firms have adopted team production instead of pursuing individual production. [38] There are advantages and disadvantages to adopting team production. Team production can be more productive than individual protection, work can be distributed between employees based on each of their specific skill sets. It may be more efficient than leaving all the work to one sole individual. However, there are also disadvantages with team production. The time it takes to organize teams and have them cooperate can be time consuming. There is also the potential risk of having a free-rider problem, individuals within a team can get away with no contribution to the work and still be compensated the same amount as their peers. [38] However, the free-rider problem can be eliminated. One solution is by organizing set protocols, this allows for easier communication and decision-making. This gives each member of the team responsibilities and requirements that are agreed upon. Punishing free-riders is another way to deter them from repeating the offense. [39] Even though free-riding is an issue when working as a team, the benefits may outweigh the potential disadvantages: [39]

Pay Compression

Pay compression, a compensation issue where wage or salary levels are non-distinguishable between long-term employees and newly hired employees. This issue develops over time, and if no action is taken to resolve this issue, organizations run a risk of a turnover. Long-term employees will feel they are undervalued and will look for work elsewhere. However, a certain degree of pay compression may lead to an efficient market outcome.

Organizations with more of a team-based work environment could consider a certain degree of pay compression. Pay compression in this case would make equity more relevant in close comparisons. [34] It can also help boost morale and worker efficiency but may lead to high productive workers leaving to join a competitor organization with a higher wage or salary. It also helps insure employees during uncertain outcomes, such as bad market conditions. However, this leaves employees vulnerable to moral hazard problems and they may put less effort into their work.

Working alongside the Tournament Theory, employees may improve their image not only by making themselves look better, but also by making their rivals look worse. Having pay being based on relative performance may cause some issues within the workplace. Co-workers will be less likely to cooperate with each other knowing that there is an opportunity to outshine each other. Pay compression can help in this case by closing the salary gap between job levels. Which in turn gives less incentive for employees to sabotage their co-workers. [40]

Hedonic Model of Compensation

The Hedonic Model is a revealed preference method used to estimate the demand or value of a good to a consumer. In the case of Personnel Economics, the model is used to estimate the value of compensation for a worker. Employees care more than just their wage or salary; they care for things outside of money. Such as:

Preferences show that older workers tend to favor health insurance or pension benefits than younger workers. [41] The Hedonic Model of Compensation helps firms to solve the balance between costs and benefits, with the goal to offer the best mixed package of pay and benefits to entice workers. The final package is determined by the preferences of the employees, the cost structure of the firm, and the desire to hire employees.

The Hedonic Model has several predictions:

  1. There is a negative trade-off between wages and “positive” job attributes.
  2. Each firm offers the benefits that attracts their most valued type of worker.

These benefits are costly for a firm, but they are also helpful by boosting productivity. [41]

Human Resource Practices in Personnel Economics

The human resource practices that firms adopt have been changing to allow for more incentive pay and with a bigger focus on teamwork. Although not all firms have experienced success with these new changes. When introducing a new practice, it is important to have other practices alongside to increase the chance of success and the outcome. Firms run the risk of not reaching optimal output if they choose not to run all practices. Economists and non-economists acknowledge the important value of complementary practices, human resource practices can be viewed as complements as the more that are implemented, the more effective the other practices become. [42] [43] This is important for when firms consider practices such as teamwork and incentive pay, they would need to consider the value of a set of practices over an individual practice.

Studies have shown the effectiveness of adopting a system of complementary practices rather than individual-based practices. Ichniowski, Shaw, and Prennushi (1997) found that steel mills that used a complementary set of practices were substantially more productive compared to their counterparts that used a limited set. [44]

Motivation-enhancing HR practices

In human resource management, there are two types of practices that organizations use, skill-enhancing practices and motivation-enhancing practices. [45]

List of motivation-enhancing practices that are used in human resource:

  • Performance pay vs. fixed pay
    • Performance Pay: Pay based on the performance of the worker.
    • Fixed Pay: Pay that is fixed for all workers.
  • Close supervision vs. freedom and trust
    • Close Supervision: Work is monitored and closely reviewed.
    • Freedom and Trust: Workers are less monitored and have more freedom.
  • Reward seniority vs. reward (comparative) performance
    • Reward Seniority: Benefits for staying with a company in the long-term.
    • Reward Performance: Rewarded on the basis of performance, rather than seniority.
  • Job security (tenure) vs. competitive selection
    • Job Security: Insured a secure long-term job regardless of performance.
    • Competitive Selection: Workers compete for jobs, under-performing workers are likely to be let go and over-achieving workers stay.
  • Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic rewards
    • Intrinsic Motivation: Appreciation of the work employees produce, motivation to work harder.
    • Extrinsic Rewards: Monetary rewards for producing high quality work.
  • Benefits and entitlements vs. additional pay
    • Benefits and Entitlements: Compensation in the form of non-monetary payment, e.g., insurance, pension, etc.
    • Additional Pay: Compensation in the form of monetary payment.

Skill-enhancing HR practices

  • Staff development programs vs. Peer training
    • Staff development programs: Refers to 'all the policies, practices, and procedures used to develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies of staff to improve the effectiveness and efficiency both of the individual and the company.' [46]
    • Peer training: Enhancement of skills through interactions with a person's peers. [47]
  • Hiring for talent vs. Hiring for experience
    • Hiring for talent: New employees are selected based on their innate ability, interest and motivation towards a certain type of work.
    • Hiring for experience: New employees are selected based on their previous experience in a similar position.
  • Promoting diversity vs. Focusing on 'merit'
    • Promoting diversity: Expanding the scope of a company in terms of individual differences such as race, or religion. [48]
    • Focus on merit: Focusing on the individuals who are most deserving, based on performance.

See also


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       • _____ and Kathryn L. Shaw, 2007. "Personnel Economics: The Economist's View of Human Resources," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21(4), pp. 91–114.
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  3. Above text adapted from JEL Classification Codes Guide: M per JEL:M5.
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       • _____, 2000a. "Economic Imperialism," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(1), pp. 99–100 & 119–22 pp. 99–146.
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  6. Edward Lazear, 2008. "personnel economics," The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition, v. 6, p. 381. Abstract.
  7. JEL Classification Codes Guide: M per JEL:M5.
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  13. Above text and footnoted examples are from JEL Classification Codes Guide M5.
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Labour economics Study of the markets for wage labour

Labour economics seeks to understand the functioning and dynamics of the markets for wage labour. Labour is a commodity that is supplied by labourers in exchange for a wage paid by demanding firms. Because these labourers exist as parts of a social, institutional, or political system, labour economics is often regarded as a sociology or political science.

Human resources is the set of people who make up the workforce of an organization, business sector, industry, or economy. A narrower concept is human capital, the knowledge and skills which the individuals command. Similar terms include manpower, labor, personnel, associates or simply: people.

The means of production is a concept that encompasses the social use and ownership of the land, labor, and capital needed to produce goods, services, and their logistical distribution and delivery.

A performance appraisal, also referred to as a performance review, performance evaluation, (career) development discussion, or employee appraisal is a method by which the job performance of an employee is documented and evaluated. Performance appraisals are a part of career development and consist of regular reviews of employee performance within organizations.

In economics, contract theory studies how economic actors can and do construct contractual arrangements, generally in the presence of information asymmetry. Because of its connections with both agency and incentives, contract theory is often categorized within a field known as Law and economics. One prominent application of it is the design of optimal schemes of managerial compensation. In the field of economics, the first formal treatment of this topic was given by Kenneth Arrow in the 1960s. In 2016, Oliver Hart and Bengt R. Holmström both received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for their work on contract theory, covering many topics from CEO pay to privatizations. Holmström (MIT) focused more on the connection between incentives and risk, while Hart (Harvard) on the unpredictability of the future that creates holes in contracts.

Incentive Something that motivates individuals to perform

An incentive is something that motivates or drives one to do something or behave in a certain way. There are two types of incentives that affect human decision making. These are: intrinsic and extrinsic incentives. Intrinsic incentives are those that motivate a person to do something out of their own self interest or desires, without any outside pressure or promised reward. However, extrinsic incentives are motivated by rewards such as an increase in pay for achieving a certain result; or avoiding punishments such as disciplinary action or criticism as a result of not doing something. 

Productivity is the efficiency of production of goods or services expressed by some measure. Measurements of productivity are often expressed as a ratio of an aggregate output to a single input or an aggregate input used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input, typically over a specific period of time. The most common example is the (aggregate) labour productivity measure, e.g., such as GDP per worker. There are many different definitions of productivity and the choice among them depends on the purpose of the productivity measurement and/or data availability. The key source of difference between various productivity measures is also usually related to how the outputs and the inputs are aggregated into scalars to obtain such a ratio-type measure of productivity. Types of production are mass production and batch production.

Managerial economics is a branch of economics involving the application of economic methods in the managerial decision-making process. Managerial economics aims to provide a framework for decision making which are directed to maximise the profits and outcomes of a company. Managerial economics focuses on increasing the efficiency of organizations by employing all possible business resources to increase output while decreasing unproductive activities. The two main purposes of managerial economics are:

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The term efficiency wages was introduced by Alfred Marshall to denote the wage per efficiency unit of labor. Marshallian efficiency wages would make employers pay different wages to workers who are of different efficiencies such that the employer would be indifferent between more-efficient workers and less-efficient workers. The modern use of the term is quite different and refers to the idea that higher wages may increase the efficiency of the workers by various channels, making it worthwhile for the employers to offer wages that exceed a market-clearing level. Optimal efficiency wage is achieved when the marginal cost of an increase in wages is equal to the marginal benefit of improved productivity to an employer.

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Employment protection legislation (EPL) includes all types of employment protection measures, whether grounded primarily in legislation, court rulings, collectively bargained conditions of employment, or customary practice. The term is common among circles of economists. Employment protection refers both to regulations concerning hiring and firing.

Kevin James Murphy is a professor at the University of Southern California. Since 2006, Murphy has held the Kenneth L. Trefftzs Chair in Finance at the USC Marshall School of Business. He is also a Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law and Professor of Economics at USC's College of Letters, Arts & Science.

Kathryn L. Shaw is the Ernest C. Arbuckle Professor of Economics at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. Previously, she was the Ford Distinguished Research Chair and Professor of Economics at Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. From 1999-2001, she served as a Senate-confirmed Member of President Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers.

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Oriana Bandiera, FBA is an Italian economist and academic, specialising in development economics. She has been Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics since 2009. She is currently the Sir Anthony Atkinson Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, and co-editor of Econometrica. Her area of study primarily concerns organizations and labor markets, and their relationship with the process of economic development.

Lisa Blau Kahn is a professor of economics at the University of Rochester. Her research focuses on labor economics with interests in organization, education, and contract theory. From 2014 to 2018, she served as an associate professor of economics at Yale School of Management and as an assistant professor of economics at Yale School of Management from 2008 to 2014. From 2010 to 2011, Kahn served as the senior economist for labor and education policy on President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.