Executive pay has long been controversial. In recent years, a number of studies have highlighted the gap between CEO pay and average salaries for workers. But all of them suffer from a basic problem: CEO compensation is widely available for public companies, but information about average worker pay is not, making it hard to accurately report the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay.
New rules adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this month mean all that is about to change. Beginning in 2017, public companies will be required to disclose the ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay, providing transparency into pay inside some of the largest companies—all the way up to the top.
At Glassdoor, we have a unique window into worker pay. Since 2008, we’ve collected thousands of voluntary and anonymous salary reports from employees in an effort to encourage pay transparency in the workplace. Using these unique data, the table below offers a sneak preview of what the ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay might look like once these new SEC disclosures go into effect.
CEO Pay vs. Worker Pay
In the table below, we show the ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay for companies listed in the S&P 500. CEOs are those listed in SEC filings for 2014, the most recent year available for most companies. Total CEO compensation is from SEC filings, and median total worker compensation is based on Glassdoor salary reports. To ensure statistical reliability, we include only companies with at least 30 salary reports on Glassdoor. For each employer, we also show their overall company rating on Glassdoor (based on a 5-point scale: 1.0=very dissatisfied, 3.0=OK, 5.0=very satisfied) as of August 19, 2015.
Across all companies, the average CEO pay was $13.8 million per year, the average median worker pay was about $77,800, and the average ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay was 204. In other words, on average, CEOs earn around 204 times what his or her median worker earns.
The company with the highest ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay is Discovery Communications. CEO David M. Zaslav earned $156 million in 2014 while median worker pay, based on Glassdoor salary reports, was $80,000, for a pay ratio of 1,951. The second highest is Chipotle, where CEO Steve Ells earned $28.9 million while median worker pay was $19,000, for a pay ratio of 1,522. Rounding out the top five with the highest pay ratios are CVS Health (Larry J. Merlo, pay ratio of 1,192); Walmart (Douglas McMillon, pay ratio of 1,133), and Target (Brian C. Cornell, pay ratio of 939).
The lowest CEO pay ratio was zero at Fossil, whose CEO Kosta Kartsotis reported $0 compensation in 2014. As noted in Fossil’s SEC filing, “Mr. Kartsotis again refused all forms of compensation for fiscal 2014. Mr. Kartsotis is one of the initial investors in our company and expressed his belief that his primary compensation is met by continuing to drive stock price growth.”
The second and third lowest CEO pay ratios (also effectively zero) were at companies whose 2014 chief executive officers reported $1 salaries: Google (Larry Page) and Kinder Morgan (Richard D. Kinder). Rounding out the five with the lowest pay ratios are Symantec (Michael Brown, pay ratio of 3), Urban Outfitters (Richard A. Hayne, pay ratio of 3).
Some Caveats to Keep in Mind
As with any comparison of CEO pay to worker pay, it’s important to keep in mind several limitations of the above estimates:
- We’ve only examined CEO pay at large, publicly traded companies on the S&P 500. These executives may not be representative of CEOs throughout the whole U.S. labor market. Executives at many small and mid-sized firms are paid dramatically less. Looking only at America’s largest firms gives a misleading view of the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay throughout the economy.
- CEO compensation is highly volatile from year to year. Most CEO pay at large companies is made up of bonuses and stock compensation that swing sharply from year to year. Choosing different base years for our analysis would have a large effect on the rankings of CEO to worker pay for these employers.
- To make a fair comparison, we compare total CEO pay to total worker pay. However, while CEO pay for bonuses, stock options and other pay beyond base salary is accurately reported in SEC filings, most workers underreport bonuses and stock options in surveys, such as Glassdoor’s salary survey. Most workers simply don’t know or don’t recall the details of non-salary compensation. As a result, total pay is likely underreported for workers, which could overstate CEO pay ratios.
- Finally, the distribution of job titles for salary reports on Glassdoor does not necessarily represent the full distribution of positions at these companies. Companies for whom a disproportionate number of low-skilled (or high-skilled) workers have reported their pay on Glassdoor may have median worker pay that is biased downward (or upward). Companies don’t typically disclose their actual distribution of job titles, making it impossible to assure that all jobs are fairly represented when calculating median worker pay.
Public debate about the gap between CEO and worker pay has gained attention in recent years. In this analysis we present new ratios of CEO pay to worker pay based on a unique source of company-level information: Glassdoor salary reports. The results shed new light on pay inequality inside some of the largest public companies—an issue likely to receive increased scrutiny in coming years.
 For the full details of the analysis, please see the methodology section below.
 This includes 441 of the S&P 500 companies. SEC proxy filings were unavailable for six of the S&P 500 employers, while insufficient worker salary data was available for 53 of the companies.
 Fossil Group, Inc. SEC proxy filing from April 9, 2015.
Companies included in this analysis are based on membership in the S&P 500 index. Total CEO compensation is directly from SEC proxy filing statements (form DEF 14A) as of 8/14/2015. CEOs were those listed as of 2014 or 2013, whichever is the most recent year available from company SEC filings. In cases when two or more CEOs are reported for the year, we show the CEO who served longest during that calendar year. In addition, in cases where two or more CEOs served equal time during that calendar year, we show the CEO who was current at the end of the year (December 31). SEC filings were not available for six of the 500 companies: Mylan N.V., Kraft Heinz Co., Columbia Pipeline Group Inc., Baxalta, PayPal and Westrock Co.
Figures for median worker compensation are based on Glassdoor salary reports for U.S. employees between 1/1/2009 through 8/17/2015, and are inflation adjusted into 2014 dollars. Total compensation includes base pay, tips, commissions, bonuses and all other forms of pay reported. Full-time and part-time employees are included in an effort to be consistent with SEC requirements. To ensure statistical validity, only companies with 30 or more Glassdoor salary reports shared by employees during this timeframe are included, which was available for 441 of the S&P 500 companies.