In the context of a technology work, how do you go about objectively justifying for a subordinate to earn the same amount or more than their manager (say the one giving performance reviews)?

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    In professional sports, this would not be a serious question at all. Why would it be different in technology work? I can see why it would apply in unskilled work (mgmt still being skilled work there).
    – MSalters
    Jul 12, 2013 at 8:05
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    Or you could turn the question around and ask when it's acceptable for the manager to earn more than the direct report. Jul 12, 2013 at 8:11
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    Fairness is largely irrelevant in capitalism, the maximum possible money one can get paid from a company is still a "fair" amount in the eyes of capitalism. You can argue about fairness all day, many believe CEOS and the ultra wealthy are not fairly earning their wage, the very top of the capitalistic food chain. Whatever the case, I find that sadly most people describe their own internal concept of fairness in an ultimately opportunistically way. Jul 12, 2013 at 13:51
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    This is a poll question and not about navigating the workplace at all. Jul 12, 2013 at 15:24
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    @MarkRogers To be fair, the sentiment you mention is more of an umbrella misnomer for a bunch of related grievances rather than a "skewed" concept of fairness. E.g. being annoyed by the entitled notion that a CEO's work is financially valued more because he brings as much to the company as umptillion rank-and-file employees instead of recognizing that it's more of a bidding war over a rare asset. Or the old chestnut of "well if X can be a major success, then anyone can", when the corollary is "but it's inherent to our economy that not everyone, and in fact barely anyone can".
    – millimoose
    Jul 12, 2013 at 17:53

6 Answers 6


When the cost of finding or training an employee is more than the cost of finding or training a manager, then its only fair that the employee is paid more.

It comes down to worth and value add. In the realm of technology, highly skilled staff can be quite valuable to the organisation and quite expensive due to their demand, especially in niche domains. So sometimes its necessary for a person to be paid commensurate to their skills, technical or otherwise.

While there are certain responsibilities in management, such as scheduling staff and ensuring deadlines are met with given resources, these responsibilities may be less 'valuable' to the organisation that the responsibilities of a skilled employee. In these cases, while a manager is responsible for staff, the employee is responsible for much more important systems which may have a bigger impact on the business.

If that means they are being paid more than the person who is managing their project or tracking their performance, there shouldn't be a reason against that. There will always be politcal push-back from the wrong sorts of managers around that, but that is another issue entirely.

Consider maintainance of a COBOL program (I recently read that the US Department of Defence (DoD) still uses COBOL for some of their payroll systems). If work was needed to be done, COBOL programmers are in very short supply and in high demand so they can command some very lucrative salaries.

While management is a skill of its own, good project managers are far more common than COBOL programmers. So it stands to reason that the DoD can afford to pay project managers less than the COBOL programmers, just by virtue of economics. If the supply-demand suggests that they pay a COBOL programmer $X just to secure their employment, there is no reason to pay more than $X for that programmers manager if the going rate for managers is less than $X.

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    This is a tremendous answer not limited to a technology field, but any field in the context of experts vs. management.
    – jmac
    Jul 12, 2013 at 2:28

This question seems to rely on a confusion of monetary reward and hierarchy. This is, I think, both widespread and unhealthy. There's no real reason that a domain expert should need to get promoted to management to earn more money and no real reason that you cannot take instruction from someone paid less than you.


I liked:

When the cost of finding or training an employee is more than the cost of finding or training a manager, then its only fair that the employee is paid more.

But I don't think it's the whole story.

In all cases, salaries are a case by case agreement between the company who needs work and the people with the skills to do the work. This fits into economics. There's a supply and demand curve here - that which is is large supply is generally cheaper to acquire - such as a common skill set. And there's a cost vs. business value tradeoff - for a very high priced resource, the company will be forced to consider the cost of the resource, the value to be gained and the costs of any alternate options. Each skill set is seen this way, and the fact that the manager is managing a resource that is paid more highly than the manager is only one facet of these tradeoffs.

Here's a bunch of cases where I've seen this situation.

Rare Skills

For the most part, really good management skills are on the rarer side of the skill set - particularly in technical work. Good judgement, common sense, people skills, and accountability never really go out of style and those are the fundamentals of good management. You'd be surprised how hard it is to find a great mix of these things and to also find someone who fits the corporate culture.

BUT - there are rarer skill sets - legacy skills (like COBOL) - come with the tradeoff that you've got to pay quite a lot to compensate someone for maintaining a very risky skill set (jobs for COBOL developers are pretty rare). Also, very, very hot skills can put the very few people who are experts ahead in the race. This is often is true for consultants and other non-permanent experts, where there is the added tradeoff that the position is known to be temporary.

Different Tradeoffs

There's more than money involved in compensation. A manager is most likely to be a permanent employee - so the manager gets a fairly large degree of control and stability - they are expected to be representatives of the company, and there is usually a fairly tight bond between manager and company. Also, work/life balance for a manager can be substantially different than the balance for an individual contributor (note, it can really go either way).

Employees getting less stability, less control and less close ties to the company may be compensated differently. Also, if their work/life balances are significantly worse than management. Take for example:

  • Expert consultants here for a very short term - usually have a fairly high rate of pay
  • People working jobs with a difficult work life balance - for example, a fairly senior night shift individual contributor vs. his manager who works in the day time.


There is a value, at times, to being able to tout the awesomeness of employees. An individual contributor can just as easily contribute to branding as a manager. Any time the company can get palpable value from a quality of the employee, the employee is in a position to bargain for a better deal. Examples of branding:

  • Graduation from an elite type of education - Ivy League schools, impressive graduate work.
  • Work in a renowned company or on a renowned project
  • Publications & contributions to technical standards

Value to Team

In my opinion, probably the ideal reason - when the value of the individual contributor is equal to the value of a manager in terms of their contribution to the team. "Leader" does not mean "boss" - leadership comes in many varieties and only some of them require the direct chain of supervisory authority. If the individual contributor can bring about gains in team efficiency, work quality, and reduction of cost/schedule risk equivalent to or better than the manager - then in my mind they should be paid comparatively.

I've been lucky enough to have this numerous times in my career. As a manager, I can make decisions, get people the resources they need (sometimes) and point out inefficiencies worth fixing. I can take responsbility for getting things done and get the team to do the work. But a good senior person can advise others, review work, make key decisions, and -most importantly- set the standard for excellence by leading by example - in a way that a mere manager cannot. A manager tends to do a type of translation/intermediary work that can't compare to the day to day work of the team. An excellent technical leader in the team can show how the work should really be done.

I'm generally happy to see that at the senior most level, the technical non-manager will get paid as well or better than the manager track - I think both are extremely important, and I'm glad to see this option exist in an organization.


Why yes, of course. Technical staff are much more in demand than managers (this is a relative statement. It does NOT mean managers are not in demand), it logically follows that they should be acquired at a bit of a premium. You are paid only slightly less than you are worth to the company, so if you are worth more to the bottom line than someone higher up, it is only natural that you should enjoy the benefits. This is not a reflection on you, but rather on the quality of your subordinates.


The hidden assumptions behind this question are that a manager should be able to do the work of his subordinates just as well as they can, and should work at least as hard as them. If they are paid better than him, there would then be no incentive for all managers not to become subordinates, and for there to be a shortage of managers until their salaries were at least equal.

Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions is correct in general. :(


As Lego Stormtroopr point out, it is all about the demand and the added value of the work you are doing.

In my mind, it is not weird for a non manager to earn more than a manager, and it happened to me as well. I personally prefer a technical role, and using the right techniques and mindset, it is possible to earn more than a manager.

I have written a short article about a similar topic, which can be found here: https://orangefishblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/move-up-and-still-stay-technical/

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