October 13, 2011 Practice Points

Is There a Price for Being Nice?

By Joanne Geha Swanson

From their earliest toddler interactions, little girls and boys are cajoled to “be nice.” But now, a recent study shows that the paychecks of agreeable men are much less than their disagreeable male counterparts. The pay difference is negligible for agreeable women. The study “Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?” was conducted by researchers Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University, Timothy A. Judge of University of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurts of University of Western Ontario.

The researchers found that the “disagreeableness premium” was $9,772 for men, but only about $1,828 for women. The higher premium for men was posited to be due in part to the fact that agreeable men “disconfirm (and disagreeable men confirm) conventional gender roles.” Disagreeableness in women, on the other hand, “is at odds with norms for feminine behavior.” Consequently, “men earn a substantial premium for being disagreeable while the same behavior has little effect on women’s income.”

All of this leads one to wonder what it means to be “disagreeable.” The report explains that “people low in agreeableness are basically amicable” but “are just slightly more likely . . . to behave disagreeably in certain situations by, for instance, aggressively advocating for their position during conflicts.” The researchers note that “[g]iven the positive contributions made by agreeable people, demonstrated in prior research, it seems that the income penalty for agreeableness is out of proportion with its performance effects.” They conclude that their research raises “important questions about the standards according to which people are evaluated” and “serves as a caveat to popular sources of career advice that either exhort people to be nice—or not.”

Joanne Geha Swanson works at Kerr, Russell and Weber, PLC in Detroit, Michigan.


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