A New Approach to Multitask Agency Problems
| Peter Klein |
The standard approach to multiask agency problems is to recognize that, if the output of some tasks is more easily measured than the output of other tasks, than others, then piece-rate incentive schemes will lead to a distortion of effort toward the more easily monitored tasks. Ask a sales clerk to sell merchandise and keep the store clean and the displays spiffy, and pay on a commission basis, and you’ll get a messy store. A new paper by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Steffen Andersen, Uri Gneezy, and John List challenges this view, arguing that using a piece-rate schemes signals that the principal is a good monitor in general, which can motivate performance even on the not-easily-measured tasks in a multitask setting:
Carrots that Look Like Sticks: Toward an Understanding of Multitasking Incentive Schemes
Omar Al-Ubaydli, Steffen Andersen, Uri Gneezy, John A. List
NBER Working Paper No. 18453, October 2012
Constructing compensation schemes for effort in multi-dimensional tasks is complex, particularly when some dimensions are not easily observable. When incentive schemes contractually reward workers for easily observed measures, such as quantity produced, the standard model predicts that unrewarded dimensions, such as quality, will be neglected. Yet, there remains mixed empirical evidence in favor of this standard principal-agent model prediction. This paper reconciles the literature by using both theory and empirical evidence. The theory outlines conditions under which principals can use a piece rate scheme to induce higher quantity and quality levels than analogous fixed wage schemes. Making use of a series of complementary laboratory and field experiments we show that this effect occurs because the agent is uncertain about the principal’s monitoring ability and the principal’s choice of a piece rate signals to the agent that she is efficient at monitoring.