Empirically, bonus pay as a component of overall renumeration has become more common over time, especially in highly competitive industries which involve high levels of human capital; think of something like management of Fortune 500 firms, where the managers now have their salary determined globally rather than locally. This doesn’t strike most economists as a bad thing at first glance: as long as we are measuring productivity correctly, workers who are compensated based on their actual output will both exert the right amount of effort and have the incentive to improve their human capital.
In an intriguing new theoretical paper, however, Benabou and Tirole point out that many jobs involve multitasking, where workers can take hard-to-measure actions for intrinsic reasons (e.g., I put effort into teaching because I intrinsically care, not because academic promotion really hinges on being a good teacher) or take easy-to-measure actions for which there might be some kind of bonus pay. Many jobs also involve screening: I don’t know who is high quality and who is low quality, and although I would optimally pay people a bonus exactly equal to their cost of effort, I am unable to do so since I don’t know what that cost is. Multitasking and worker screening interact among competitive firms in a really interesting way, since how other firms incentivize their workers affects how workers will respond to my contract offers. Benabou and Tirole show that this interaction means that more competition in a sector, especially when there is a big gap between the quality of different workers, can actually harm social welfare even in the absence of any other sort of externality.
Here is the intuition. For multitasking reasons, when different things workers can do are substitutes, I don’t want to give big bonus payments for the observable output, since if I do the worker will put in too little effort on the intrinsically valuable task: if you pay a trader big bonuses for financial returns, she will not put as much effort into ensuring all the laws and regulations are followed. If there are other finance firms, though, they will make it known that, hey, we pay huge bonuses for high returns. As a result, workers will sort, with all of the high quality traders will move to the high bonus firm, leaving only the low quality traders at the firm with low bonuses. Bonuses are used not only to motivate workers, but also to differentially attract high quality workers when quality is otherwise tough to observe. There is a tradeoff, then: you can either have only low productivity workers but get the balance between hard-to-measure tasks and easy-to-measure tasks right, or you can retain some high quality workers with large bonuses that make those workers exert too little effort on hard-to-measure tasks. When the latter is more profitable, all firms inefficiently begin offering large, effort-distorting bonuses, something they wouldn’t do if they didn’t have to compete for workers.
How can we fix things? One easy method is with a bonus cap: if the bonus is capped at the monopsony optimal bonus, then no one can try to screen high quality workers away from other firms with a higher bonus. This isn’t as good as it sounds, however, because there are other ways to screen high quality workers (such as offering lower clawbacks if things go wrong) which introduce even worse distortions, hence bonus caps may simply cause less efficient methods to perform the same screening and same overincentivization of the easy-to-measure output.
When the individual rationality or incentive compatibility constraints in a mechanism design problem are determined in equilibrium, based on the mechanisms chosen by other firms, we sometimes called this a “competing mechanism”. It seems to me that there are quite a number of open questions concerning how to make these sorts of problems tractable; a talented young theorist looking for a fun summer project might find it profitable to investigate this as-yet small literature.
Beyond the theoretical result on screening plus multitasking, Tirole and Benabou also show that their results hold for market competition more general than just perfect competition versus monopsony. They do this through a generalized version of the Hotelling line which appears to have some nice analytic properties, at least compared to the usual search-theoretic models which you might want to use when discussing imperfect labor market competition.